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Las Vegas performers unite for annual Ribbon of Life benefit

It’s more than a title; it’s a philosophy.

After more than three decades, “The Show Must Go On.”

In this case, the show is Ribbon of Life, an annual benefit for Golden Rainbow, which provides housing, education and financial assistance for Southern Nevadans living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.

The show goes on at 1 p.m. Sunday in The Foundry at SLS Las Vegas. (An 11 a.m. red-carpet reception and silent auction precede the matinee performance; a separate after-party at SLS’ Sayers Club follows.)

Initially, this year’s 32nd annual Ribbon of Life was set to present “Chicago,” following in the musical footsteps of last year’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Instead, producers opted to return to the benefit’s long-running revue format for the show, featuring about 150 cast members from more than two dozen Strip productions, from “Le Reve” to “Zombie Burlesque.” Among those represented: Cirque du Soleil’s “Zumanity,” “Mystere” and, inevitably, the Beatles-themed “Love,” along with “X Country,” “X Rocks,” “Absinthe” and UNLV’s music department.

They’ll be performing 18 musical numbers keyed to this year’s theme, the British Invasion.

So expect the Beatles and David Bowie in the musical mix, along with (among others) the Rolling Stones, George Michael, Elton John and even Bond, James Bond — represented by the theme from 007’s made-in-Vegas adventure, 1971’s “Diamonds Are Forever.”

Not to mention Queen, whose featured hits include “The Show Must Go On.” (An all-too-appropriate choice, considering it was written about lead singer Freddie Mercury’s efforts to keep performing while battling deadly complications of HIV/AIDS; the single was released in October 1991, six weeks before Mercury’s death.)

This year’s Ribbon of Life setting, SLS’ Foundry, provides a bit more of a “concert feel” for the show, according to producer Pietra Sardelli.

The benefit’s participating performers, she says, include Human Nature, the Bronx Wanderers and magicians Murray Sawchuck and Jason Bird.

Usually, magicians don’t want to appear in the same show as other magicians, Sardelli says, but both illusionists agreed, underlining the theme of cooperation and support that has characterized Ribbon of Life from the start.

In the benefit’s early years, “when we had ‘Folies (Bergere)’ and ‘Jubilee,’ ” — two long-running, now-closed Strip spectaculars — it was easier to get an entire cast to participate, she says. “Now, because the show community is very different,” one or two performers might represent an entire show. (“Jubilee’s” still on the bill, represented by a group of Golden Rainbow alumni.)

But “Baz — A Musical Tour de Force” will be represented by its entire cast. (July 29 marks “Baz’s” final performance at the Palazzo.)

For many Ribbon of Life performers, the show represents a chance for former castmates to reunite, adds Gary Costa, Golden Rainbow’s executive director.

The benefit also allows cast members to stretch their performing muscles, Sardelli says, such as a singer who could show off “a phenomenal dance talent.” Or “someone with a great voice” will team up to augment “an awesome dance number.”

“For many of the performers who participate in this show, it’s their way of giving back,” Costa says. “It’s a true community effort.”

Beyond the good cause, however, there’s a good show — something that Ribbon of Life has been delivering for more than three decades, with its custom production numbers from performers in the Strip’s top shows.

Its lineup of one-time-only performances means “you don’t get to see this again,” Sardelli says. “Opportunity missed, opportunity lost.”

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Golden Rainbow’s commitment to help

When Golden Rainbow launched more than three decades ago with a one-time-only musical benefit, the goal was to raise funds so AIDS patients would have a place to live — even if it was only for a few days, weeks or months.

Some 32 years later, prescription treatments — unavailable at the start of the AIDS crisis — mean that AIDS patients are living years, not months.

“We still have a huge housing crisis in Southern Nevada,” says Gary Costa, executive director for Golden Rainbow, which provides housing, education and financial assistance to locals living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.

The current crisis impacts many Golden Rainbow clients living below the national poverty level, whose monthly disability support covers their rent — and little more, Costa says. (More than 8,000 Southern Nevadans have HIV or AIDS, he says — and 2,500 of them don’t have health insurance.)

The annual Ribbon of Life benefit enables Golden Rainbow to help 700 households “so they don’t lose their homes,” he says. In addition, the group provides education and job training, giving clients “the opportunity to get back into the workforce.”

Over its 32-year history, the annual Ribbon of Life benefit has raised more than $8 million, according to Costa.

“When the program started, people were dying,” says Pietra Sardelli, producer of “The Show Must Go On,” this year’s Ribbon of Life benefit. “Now that people are living longer,” Golden Rainbow has shifted its focus to “job training, education — a hand up instead of a handout.”

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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