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Academy’s ‘Changing Faces’ full of surprises

Two very different shows had their official opening last weekend, both worth seeing. One’s playing indefinitely, the other closes shop Saturday.

Las Vegas Academy’s dance drama “Changing Faces” (7 p.m. today and Saturday at the Lowden, Ninth Street and Clark Avenue) demonstrates not just skilled movement and attitude (which you expect from the magnet school) but a surprising amount of surprise. You never quite know where the production – conceived, directed and choreographed by faculty member Jeneane Gallo Huggins – is headed.

The 36-member cast gets things going with some intense, defiant, broad gestures unaided by music. Five women then speak in different languages about their heritages. A man slowly walks onstage weighed down by folding chairs that seem to imprison him. It’s not long before the subdued opening segues into a full-throttle number about the advantages and burdens in differences.

I was fascinated by the performers’ ability to create character while wowing with physical feats. (Do these artists understand the rules of gravity?) I particularly enjoyed how Huggins et al. incorporate props – cereal boxes, balloons, rakes, flowers, silverware – into the frenzied activity. Sometimes when you think you’ve just experienced a climactic moment, the moment continues to build until you can’t help but wildly applaud – if no other reason than to release the energy that the show infuses you with.

Equally riveting are the quiet scenes when people such as Erik Lobenberg deliver simple, stunning vocals. I probably can’t convince you, good reader, of what a treat it is to hear here a standard such as “Puff the Magic Dragon,” but trust me. Lobenberg’s expressive crystal-clear vocalizing is matched by his sensitivity to lyric, so that I felt as if I were hearing the words for the first time.

John Morris’ excitingly varied lights give the proceedings an extra pulse.

I did, though, often wish that Huggins would turn over her conceptions to a genuine writer. She touches on themes that are of particular interest to high schoolers, but I wonder why she overstates. Do teenagers need to be spoon-fed? (lvacademy.org) …

Although I appreciate many Broadway musicals, I sometimes cringe when I attend showtune concerts. Too often the numbers are treated so reverently and are so oversung that you wonder how the songs ever became revered.

Not to worry at The Phat Pack show.

The current 75-minute songfest at the Plaza is handled by four men who not only sing spectacularly well, but understand the appeal of the genre. The cast (do I need to tell you?) is made up of four seasoned pros: Bruce Ewing (who performed locally in the long-running “Forever Plaid”), Ted Keegan (from Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera”), Randal Keith (from the Broadway and touring company of “Les Miserables”), and Joey Singer (longtime accompanist for Debbie Reynolds).

They pump new energy into the likes of “The Impossible Dream,” “Bring Him Home” and “Music of the Night.” If I revealed that they also tell the story of their individual lives with the aid of slide shows, you might stay away. But they integrate the material so well – and so unsentimentally – that it makes for a smooth, intimate, bare-bones affair that deserves to succeed. (plazahotelcasino.com)

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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