Growth pains for S&M-tinged; show

Special to The Times

THERE was a bit of culture shock at first. When legendary pornographer John Stagliano opened his long-dreamed-of erotic dance show, “The Fashionistas,” at the Desert Passage Mall in the Aladdin in late 2004, he expected his biggest headache would come from county regulators over the show’s envelope-pushing explorations of sexuality, fetish and sadomasochism. He was mistaken.

“The thing that is radical about my show is the content: An S&M; image is being used to move the story forward. My biggest fear was that people would think intellectually about what is going on onstage,” he explains. “This is a girl who is trying to seduce somebody by showing him pictures of her tied up; I thought that might offend somebody. It hasn’t; they were looking just at how much skin was revealed, and by that standard, the show isn’t radical at all.”

In fact, while it has occasional man-on-man dirty dancing and even a shoe-fetish number, the most sexually provocative and adventurous show in Las Vegas history isn’t even topless. And so, rather than condemnation, the show (based on his adult film of the same title) opened to extraordinary critical raves in local outlets that praised Stagliano’s aggressive choreography, aerialists, lighting effects, sumptuous costumes, production values and, in general, proclaimed “Fashionistas’ ” creativity off the charts: Las Vegas had never seen anything like it.


Of course, being startlingly original and creatively adventurous is not what Las Vegas entertainment is known for, especially in its adult shows, which tend to require no more than jiggles and jokes. So finding an audience for a 90-minute modernist dance interpretation of a marathon porno movie has been a huge challenge. This time last year, Stagliano was reporting losses of $35,000 to $40,000 a week.

“It is really difficult to market to this town. It is so expensive and so competitive. I didn’t know it was this hard. Vegas audiences have been great for me. But it is a small audience because there are only so many people in town who want to see my kind of show at one particular time.”

Though it’s no longer losing that kind of money, even now Stagliano says “Fashionistas” is nowhere close to breaking even. “It is doing very poorly. It is an expensive show to do. There are 20 performers in the show, and it is a small room. The most we can get in there is 200 people. So the show has been a creative exercise for me to a large extent.”

Lacking dialogue, the story at the center of “Fashionistas” -- a love triangle centering on a European designer who is developing a fetish line -- is told through dancing and a soundtrack that mixes original music with songs by, among others, Tool, Led Zeppelin and Evanescence. What has wowed critics here is that the sensuality and staging of “Fashionistas” are sophisticated, aggressive and detailed. Traditional Vegas chorus lines and moves are a world away from the wild expressive dancing Stagliano favors.

One lead, Kelly Adkins, a veteran of almost a decade in Vegas shows, laughs when asked to compare Stagliano’s show with her other Vegas experiences. “John is not afraid to do what he wants to do and do it hard. He gives you the liberty to take the show to the next level to make it more erotic.”

Victoria L. Ribeiro, who recently left a position as vice president of marketing for Splash at the Riviera to work as the director of marketing for “The Fashionistas,” says: “The main difference between John and the other producers in Las Vegas is that John’s vision was rooted primarily in creating a beautiful dance show with little consideration to the marketability of that show. Rather than find an element or concept that might be missing in Las Vegas and build a show to fill that niche, he built ‘The Fashionistas’ to realize a creative dream. But a critically acclaimed show in Las Vegas is not necessarily one that will sell tickets.”


Unlike with “Le Reve” and “Ka” (or, for that matter, the short-lived “We Will Rock You” and “Avenue Q”), the national media have mostly ignored “The Fashionistas.” Nor have the local good reviews even helped Stagliano’s relationship with the host property. According to Stagliano, “The Aladdin hotel has not been receptive to helping us do any marketing. Other shows are promoted as part of the experience of coming to the Aladdin hotel, and my show, which has done much better critically, is ignored.”

Certainly with so many obstacles, any other show would have closed. But Stagliano is as stubborn as he is creative. According to Ribeiro: “Luckily, John’s resources to sustain his dream have allowed the show to remain open.”

And his resources from his day job are substantial. “John is arguably the most influential pornographer this industry has ever seen,” says Mike Ramone, editor in chief of Adult Video News, the porn industry trade magazine. In the ‘80s Stagliano pioneered the genre of plot-free porn known as gonzo through his wildly popular Buttman films. Though his on-camera career ended (Stagliano was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1997), he continues to wield influence and rake in money as the owner of Evil Angel, among the country’s premier distributors of adult films.

The movie version of “The Fashionistas” was honored with numerous AVN awards, and Saturday night Stagliano was scheduled to receive a special achievement award for the stage version of “Fashionistas” from AVN during its annual Las Vegas convention at the Venetian. According to Ramone, “John is the first pornographer to stage a Broadway-quality show and to stage it so brilliantly. It is a significant step in the mainstreaming of adult.”

Where else would you expect such a cultural breakthrough?


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