Accolades for ventriloquist more than just lip service


Just like that, Terry Fator is a new standard on the Strip. On Saturday night, he put on a crowd-pleasing show for an invitation-only crowd of media elites and Vegas insiders. Afterward, they were all happy. This is very important for Las Vegas.

I know what you're thinking. Who cares what elites like? And of course they were in a good mood. They saw a free show, gobbled free cocktails, did some social networking, flirted, ate chocolate and kissed cheeks.

But Vegas insiders spread word of mouth and make things happen. And their happiness wasn't the booze talking.

People kept telling me they were "surprised" Fator's show was much more entertaining than they expected from a singing ventriloquist.

(The only complaint: The show was a smidgeon too long.)

Their mood was, I'd say, giddy. It was almost as if everyone was relieved. Sure, people like a good time. But the economy needs a fun show with strong word-of-mouth to feed the tourism machine.

And remember, Vegas insiders were not giddy at the last big show opening: Cirque du Soleil's "Believe," starring illusionist Criss Angel.

Angel's debut was so yuck, the mood among some of these same VIPs was nihilism. Some moped during Angel's fancy, free, flirty after-party -- and others were so disappointed, they skipped "Believe's" extravagant party altogether.

At Fator's grand opening, these insiders laughed at Angel's expense. The singing ventriloquist pulled out Winston the turtle puppet. Winston boasted that he could do an illusion by levitating above his podium (thanks to Fator's puppet hand).

"I just saved you folks $100. Now you don't have to go see Criss Angel" at the Luxor, Winston said, causing many to guffaw and others to utter "whoa" in unison because we realized this is the state of Criss Angel, mocked by a puppet -- effectively.

But Fator also fared well compared to other shows. Some show-goers told me they enjoy Danny Gans, the singing impressionist who just moved to Wynn's Encore, yet Fator impressed them more by being new and by singing impressions "with his mouth closed."

Bottom line: No show is going to pull Vegas out of economic doldrums by itself. But Vegas is all about The New and The Good. Fator's show is both. Sales are great out of the gate. Cabbies, concierges and advertisements will convince more tourists to go.

Those tourists will presumably leave thinking they've seen a feel-good show, particularly tourists looking for mostly "clean" entertainment that feeds them pop culture references and applause lines.

Make no mistake. Fator's earnest act, in our post-ironic times, is as safe as it gets. Fator briefly dresses up as Michael Jackson, then speaks as Jackson to a redneck-ish puppet that ridicules Jackson's fondness for children.

At another point, Fator asks military vets to stand from their seats to be applauded. You can view this as easy and pandering, but a lot of visitors won't.

Fator and his puppets sing medleys of familiar and classic songs you've heard a zillion times: "Stayin' Alive," "Billie Jean," "Friends in Low Places," "Sweet Child o' Mine," "At Last," "I Got You Babe," and of course "Viva Las Vegas."

Like all overplayed songs, those are the songs of least resistance that A) you and I have been indoctrinated by radio and TV to endure, even if they're well-worn, and B) oddly unite us through the shared experience of knowing every lyric.

So not only does Fator's standard stand up against Gans and other longtime Vegas acts, he also marks the first real pushback in some time to the more complex Cirque and Broadway-ish casts on the Strip.

Fator's show is just him, his puppets, a band and an occasional blonde assistant.

By comparison, Angel's "Believe" may rot, but it and superior Cirque productions are brave in a way. They are conceptual and often surreal efforts by scores of artists to challenge the masses to embrace Russian contortionists and perplexing (if spectacular) performance art.

Let's look to the future for a second. Certainly, Mandalay Bay's upcoming "The Lion King" will be even newer when it debuts in May, and it's easy to imagine such a mainstream, Broadway-tested show will earn good money and boost the Strip.

But Fator's show speaks more to where mainstream America lives than "The Lion King" and maybe every show on the Strip.

Fans know Fator from TV, winning the reality competition of "America's Got Talent" 19 months ago.

Fator sings tunes in bursts of 30 seconds or 60 seconds, the length of TV commercials.

He reaches for TV's all-inclusive family crowd. His dirtiest joke is when a randy, aging puppet woman says she is dating a 21-year-old guy, and riddles a math question: How many times does 21 go into 49? That might have been "blue" in 1962.

And we Americans are so programmed to look at TV, fans in Saturday night's audience mostly watched Fator and his puppets as they appeared in real time on two giant video monitors next to the stage, instead of looking at him, even as he was standing right in front of their eyes.

Three or four times on Saturday, I turned around to look at the crowd behind me, and I'd guess about 85 percent of everyone was staring at the screens, possibly to get a better view of his face and puppet gyrations, but also to see whether his lips moved.

On top of all that's going for Fator, he arrives with a reputation for being a nice guy, which will help him in this town of go-along-to-get-along. Everyone expects Vegas to be filled with egos. But egos not tempered by humility get bogged down in this city, the mayor notwithstanding.

Fator always speaks to the media with humility, telling us how grateful and bowled over he is. People who work with him behind the scenes tell me he is a joy. If he's smart, he will never forget to surround himself with people of similar temperament.

Many TV viewers relate to Fator's American Dream background. He toiled for years, performing literally for an audience of one kid at a fair a few years ago, then struck it rich on TV, now earning a supposed $100 million, five-year contract at The Mirage.

By the way, the first time he played Vegas was at an Excalibur steakhouse where he was discouraged from doing ventriloquism.

Fator 1; steakhouse zero.

So at age 43, Fator has a lifetime's experience behind him, honing a crowd-pleasing methodology. Contrast that hardworking result to the young and born-rich, Kim Kardashian-esque stars who command big bucks to simply walk into a nightclub in Las Vegas.

Young clubbers will still line up for cocktails and temptations in their presence. But a fair number of older clubbers weary of renting $2,000 club tables will opt instead for the talents of Fator and, by extension of positive experience, other showroom productions.

In short, Fator appears for now to be exactly what Vegas needs: an amicable and pretty entertaining, TV-tested throwback (a singing ventriloquist?) who will do his part to reinvigorate the Strip out of recession, shoring up showrooms against club culture, and superseding the distasteful episode in Vegas history that might be known as the harsh and wintry season of Criss Angel.

Spring is finally right around the corner.

Doug Elfman's column appears on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 383-0391 or e-mail him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He also blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

 

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