It's Liza with a T, and that's for Tradition

Special to The Times

EARLY last Sunday, I saw something truly special on the Strip.

Special, I'm aware, is among the most overused words in Las Vegas. It implies unusual, uncommon and therefore not fully predictable, but Vegas resorts live by games of chance and therefore have a uniquely informed aversion to letting chance, or errant spontaneity, bleed into their operations. On the Strip, everything is designed to appear special to tourists while remaining routine to the resorts.

Penn & Teller built an entire routine in their show at the Rio on this Vegas duality. In the bit, Penn juggles broken glass bottles. The juggling is impressive enough, but the postmodern spiel Penn delivers beforehand twists the audience in knots as he pretends that this night is special because one of the bottles is really, unusually and dangerously broken. There is a good chance, he says, that this will be the night he cuts himself open.

Penn acknowledges that he says this same thing at every performance, every night. But the irony, he adds, is that none of that matters, because this time, for real, the bottle is truly, dangerously broken.

But I digress. The kind of "special" I saw last week comes from a simpler and more old-fashioned time in entertainment. Straightforwardly and without hall-of-mirror semantics, Liza Minnelli performed a free 1 a.m. concert at the Luxor for all the performers on the Strip.

The idea for the concert was Minnelli's, and she approached the Luxor to provide the venue and support staff for an event that offered no promise of economic reward for either the property or the performer. This show was not even benefiting a charity.

There was no marketing or publicity gain to be had either, as Minnelli has no currently scheduled shows in Las Vegas to hawk. The performance came at the end of her three-day run at the Luxor, and it happened only for its own sake, with no other agenda. A week in advance, e-mails were sent to every show on the Strip offering free tickets to one and all. Minnelli's goal, she said, was to give a concert for an audience she kept calling her "babies," the next generation of Strip entertainers.

Most everyone I spoke to was excited, in part because no one had ever seen such a gathering of the tribe. Present were cast members from all the Cirque shows, "Phantom of the Opera," "Mamma Mia," "Jubilee," "Fantasy" and, I am sure, others -- as ridiculously young, in-shape and attractive a group of people as you will ever see. The late start time was meant to give the audience enough time to get over to the pyramid-shaped casino after their own shows (and the Strip's Saturday night congestion) were over.

According to Minnelli, she and Sammy Davis Jr. started putting on shows for the Strip's performers back in the '80s. That Vegas was another world: no Venetian, Mandalay Bay, Bellagio or Wynn. Back then, there was no Cirque, there were no spectaculars featuring Celine or Elton (Elvis was dead), and Broadway shows were still on Broadway.

So it wasn't surprising that no one in the crowd seemed to remember this "tradition" at all. Cultural memory is notoriously weak in Las Vegas, and besides, back then, most of today's show kids were schoolkids in places that were probably nowhere near Las Vegas.

Part of the pleasure of the night was that Minnelli's material was as much from another time as her style of entertaining. Few in the audience of twentysomethings from today's over-the-top Vegas spectacles seemed familiar with songs like Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." But that mattered as little as plot does to a Cirque show. Across the generations, entertaining is always no more or less than holding an audience's attention, and it was marvelous to watch Minnelli school today's show kids on how charismatic a performer and storyteller could be on a stage without acrobats, an army of dancers and fireworks tossed in at the finale.

At one point Minnelli, as if offering a lesson, explained to the audience that she'd always known she wasn't a great singer yet also knew she could act. So she made her acting her singing. It is an approach that meant that from the novelty "Sara Lee" to the sly "You've Let Yourself Go" she dramatized each song, drawing hoots and screams of appreciation from the audience all night.

Minnelli stayed onstage until 3:30 a.m. She got more than 20 standing ovations, and none was more enthusiastic than the one that came as she ripped off her fake eyelashes. The gesture, about two-thirds of the way through the show, marked the intimate bond she had established with the audience. No longer was there any need for artifice. She could relax and be informal, truly and dangerously, on this night, among her babies.


For more on what's happening on and off the Strip, see buffet.

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