The Riviera’s had a lot of second chances lately, and now you can say it’s true of the shows moving in.
In the latest burst of new momentum, the vintage hotel has turned most of its entertainment over to a startup called Red Mercury Entertainment. The producers have installed four new titles with more to come. “New” is relative, though, since the three we are talking about here (saving “Men the Experience” for another day) are new twists on older efforts.
Upstairs in the Starlite Theatre, “Pawn Shop Live!” gets a major rewrite after three months at the Golden Nugget. The “Saturday Night Live”-style spoof is still sanctioned by the real TV “Pawn Stars,” who try to show up at the end of each matinee.
Downstairs on the casino floor, we find veteran R&B singers who for years burned through their matching blazers at the Sahara and Rio in branches of groups such as the Platters. Now avoiding those long-litigated names, they get the Le Bistro lounge back in business with the twin cabaret shows “Forever Doo Wop” and “Forever Motor City.”
The two revues close off the Le Bistro to charge a ticket, but still restore the venue to a semblance of its former glory, when the lounges were home to modest miniproductions that revived gamblers and spread energy to the surrounding casino.
There’s sound logic in having mostly the same singers perform separately ticketed shows, letting you pick which era sings more to you: the doo-wop hits of the late ’50s and early ’60s, or the Motown sound that kicked into high gear as doo-wop faded.
Sound logic, except I’m here to complicate things by saying “Doo Wop” is better, even though I’m more partial to the Motown catalog.
Although both shows are sung to track, the very nature of doo-wop lets it thrive on the vocal harmonies of the live singers. The lightly scored backing tracks are minimally invasive.
Motown classics are more driven by the music, so “Motor City” often feels bogged down and drained of its energy by the karaoke tracks. And “Doo Wop” stands alone in its field, while “Motor City” competes with two Motown tributes backed by live bands. Unless you really have a problem with Australian white guys, Human Nature wins the three-way race hands-down. “Motor City” and “Hitzville” evenly match their singers, and would be more or less a “pick ’em” if “Hitzville” didn’t have the live band as an edge.
“Doo Wop” also has more visual energy and creative structure from director Misty Rowe (yes, that Misty Rowe of “Hee Haw” fame). Onstage DJ Ryan Flanigan and the countdown format of “The Top 10 Doo Wop Songs of all time” give the hour an organizing thread and some forward motion.
The expected hits are broken up with a couple of fun surprises, such as the singers clustering stage front to sing a vintage Ajax commercial. Classic songs of yearning — Early Clover’s strong take on “Since I Don’t Have You,” Lawrence Maurice Jones’ rendition of “I Only Have Eyes for You” — are balanced by the era’s sense of fun in novelty hits such as “Get a Job” and “Speedoo.”
“Motor City,” directed by Gary Kupper, is more the “back-and-forth” trading of hits between the four guys covering the likes of the Temptations, then the three women trading lead vocals on Supremes hits, before combining forces for big moments such as “River Deep Mountain High.”
Both shows at least make you feel you’re in good hands, with strong singers across the board ranging from the youthful Serena Henry, who has toured with Smokey Robinson, to veteran Willie Green punching in on the deep bass.
While most of the Riviera’s shows fall within tried-and-true formulas, “Pawn Stars Live!” at least tries to do something different. The sketch comedy spoof is an attempt to answer the question, how do you spin the popularity of Las Vegas’ biggest homegrown stars into something that can sell a ticket?
The answer so far? Awkwardly.
The show keeps improving by increments, yet still comes off as just so-so. A likable ensemble gets you on its side enough to extract a few smiles (as well as a few groans), but not a lot of outright laughs.
The spoof written by director Troy Heard and his cast simply needs more jokes. It’s something the producers acknowledged after last week’s official premiere with news that gag writers from Los Angeles will punch the thing into yet another iteration. Version 3.0?
For now, 2.0 is a marginal improvement. It refocused to be more about the TV show and less about pawn patriarch Rick Harrison’s life story, and weeded out some of the cartoonish acting to level the tone.
The whole cast is now on the same “Saturday Night Live” playing field, balancing the broad, wacky stuff — Criss Angel (Anita Bean) pawning a magic trick — with more grounded parodies of “Slick” (Sean Critchfield), his son “Lil’ Boss” (Gus Langley) and comic sidekick “Chump” (Garret Grant). The “Old Fart” is still a puppet, voiced by Troy Tinker as one of many small parts he assumes.
Perhaps the whole thing is just a misguided idea, with too much of a disconnect between those in the market for sketch comedy and TV fans lured by the chance to “buy” the Pawn Stars. Still, if you root for new ideas and would like to see the Riviera hosting more than the third Motown show or one of five topless shows (“Crazy Girls”), cross your fingers and hope for more laughs per minute to save this one from being a write-off instead of a “Write it up.”
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.