On May 16, 1983, Michael Jackson secured his own legend by dancing to “Billie Jean” on NBC’s “Motown 25” special. It aired two weeks after “Legends in Concert” opened in Las Vegas.
Damian Brantley re-creates that moonwalk in “Legends,” which is as good a way as any to put the show’s amazing 30-year run into perspective.
The Strip’s second-longest running show (behind “Jubilee!”) has seen the mixed blessings of celebrity tributes becoming a larger part of show business. Big-picture competition includes long-form tributes — to everyone from the Bee Gees to Led Zeppelin — booked alongside “real” performers in tribal and suburban casinos.
And Brantley dances with such a liquid fury that he shows how irresistible a celebrity tribute can be when firing on all cylinders. It’s safe to say Cirque du Soleil’s new “Michael Jackson One” won’t be so literal as to have an impersonator. Yet Brantley is an argument that any other attempt to capture the Gloved One’s appeal is just circling around the target.
But “Legends” fell to the second tier of Las Vegas shows over the years, unable — or unwilling — to goose up the production budget enough to keep up with big players such as Cirque.
What you see onstage doesn’t look a whole lot different from what it did in the 1980s. A stair-stepped riser wraps around the live band, and any production garnishes for, say, the Britney Spears “Circus” number, are hauled on by the performers themselves.
If they can’t outspend the competition, the producers were smart to fade back to an afternoon time slot for most performances in the show’s new home at the Flamingo (they also have evening shows on Sundays, Mondays and when Flamingo headliners are on vacation).
But I also have to wonder if direct competitors, who periodically turn up to challenge “Legends” on the Strip, indirectly contribute to the show’s longevity by giving it a good kick in the pants.
For years it was “American Superstars” that kept “Legends” honest. The new challenger is “Tribute Royalty,” produced by Matt Lewis, who for years wore the jumpsuit as a “Legends” Elvis.
On the surface, “Tribute” is so close in content that you wonder why they even bother. And yet, there’s an energy, visual style and overall sense of good taste the entrenched show should envy.
You can sense a little bit of pull within “Legends” between the way things have always been done and what needs to happen next. It’s symbolic that an old-school tribute to Tom Jones will be rotated out Monday, replaced by a Lady Gaga, even if it’s really just the show’s usual means of scheduling seven locations.
The current lineup is a typical mixed bag. John Anthony looks more like Rod Stewart than he sounds, and Victor Trevino sounds a whole lot more like young Elvis than he looks. (How did this guy, who is better than his counterpart in “Million Dollar Quartet,” miss out on that Broadway show that seeks great voices more than look-alikes?)
Katie Murdock as Spears is the best mix of look- and sound-alike. The temptation to out-sing the real Britters must be incredible, but she tamps it down to that oddly endearing coo.
No cooing with Steve McCoy’s Tom Jones. He can’t always get up there with “The Voice” — Jones didn’t get that nickname for nothin’ — but he so perfectly captures the lascivious eye-rolling of the ’80s-era Tomcat that he makes us miss the real thing terribly. And he was a much closer demographic match to this day’s audience than Lady Gaga anyway.
Over at the V Theater, “Tribute Royalty” points out that the real Achilles heel of “Legends” is not any one impersonator, but the clunky choreography of the eight dancers and generic framing of the numbers.
Although “Legends” makes you wonder why ballroom dancers show up during Stewart’s “Some Guys Have All the Luck,” the eight dancers in “Tribute” turn Edward Moss’ version of Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” into a three-act drama: A chair dance by the four women gives way to the men, then all eight are combined before the song ends with just Moss and one woman together.
It’s one advantage choreographer Janell Lewis (who is married to Matt Lewis) makes of a permanent cast instead of the rotating, modular format of “Legends,” and of having just three acts perform 25-minute segments, rather than five doing 15.
The Lewises fill the small stage with the athletic cast and the wrap-around video walls with imaginative images, such as a wall-to-wall blow-up of Erika Moul’s Gaga during “Alejandro.”
What they don’t have is the fine “Legends” band, which you most notice during the early, rockabilly part of Travis Allen’s three-act Elvis tribute. At least the recorded tracks are good recordings.
Allen finds his lower Elvis range during the requisite “ ’68 Comeback Special” and Vegas jumpsuit segments, and Moss is an upbeat Jackson. But if Brantley is the MVP of “Legends,” here it’s Moul’s fully committed Gaga.
Throwing herself on the ground, or standing on a piano bench to lean down to the keys, she’s living and breathing this. Tribute shows may be, by definition, a second-rate form of entertainment. But when someone takes an impression this seriously, you have no choice but to do so as well.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.