EDINBURGH, Scotland — The cast of “Atomic Saloon Show” is in full flourish, swilling the champagne and nibbling the noshes at its post-opening night party at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The show drew a full house in full roar, a standing ovation from a Fringe crowd notoriously jaded and callous to new comedy productions.
Ross Mollison, the self-styled “Impresario Extraordinaire” and founder of the production company Spiegelworld, calls for quiet. He pulls off his sequined, fuchsia cowboy hat — all guests have been given one for the Western-themed event — and says, “I want to give a Laurel & Hardy handshake to the writer of this show, Cal McCrystal!”
In a magical moment, opening night is also McCrystal’s 60th birthday. —
That line of course is from “Blazing Saddles,” and Mollison (who does nothing accidentally) recited it for a reason. “Atomic Saloon Show,” which opens Sept. 8 at a customized second-level Atomic Saloon theater at the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian, is not just inspired by the Mel Brooks classic. It seems to share the same DNA.
If “Blazing Saddles” were ever developed as a sequel, or were adapted for the Las Vegas stage, “Atomic” would be it. The show is a rowdy mix of that movie with the sort of inventive side acts competing on “America’s Got Talent.”
The mash of acrobatics and adult humor has worked for Spiegelworld in its monster hit “Absinthe” at Caesars Palace, and in the intergalactically themed “Opium” at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. “Atomic” is to be followed next year by the disco-inspired “We Are Here,” as Spiegelworld advances its reputation as the Strip’s dominant comedy production company.
With that in mind, Mollison says, “We want to keep moving forward. We don’t want to keep doing the same show over and over.”
— John Katsilometes (@johnnykats) August 5, 2019
‘No place for romance’
“Atomic” achieves that as the company’s first foray into the Wild West culture. Brooks’ anachronistic, farcical sense of satire cuts through the entire production. The characters, and their acts, are all interlocking and related in some way to each other. The show’s host and bordello madame Boozy Skunkton is portrayed with ribald glee by Petra Massey of Spymonkey fame, and long ago of “Zumanity” at New York-New York. The Boozy character could have been played by Madeline Kahn in another era.
— John Katsilometes (@johnnykats) August 9, 2019
“This is a brothel!” Boozy shouts at a canoodling couple that is one of the story’s subtexts. “This ain’t no place for romance!” Cutting through the fourth wall, she follows a spellbinding pole number by Ukrainian artist Alina Shpynova by saying, “That was real smooth — just like this transition!”
Along the way, Boozy smells smoke from the stage, only to realize her crotch is smoldering, probably because of all the semi-nude performers pervading her saloon.
— John Katsilometes (@johnnykats) August 9, 2019
And, in a moment that has been captured in early reviews of the show from the U.K., Colin Cahill’s buff-but-barmy singing cowboy character Blue Jackson opens the show with a song so, well, blue that no critique has yet successfully imparted the lyrics. It’s an homage to a sex act and fisticuffs, performed by Cahill on an acoustic guitar while wearing an open-vested, blue-satin cowboy costume. It’s sort of Channing Tatum channeling Johnny Cash.
The raunchy sing-along is a fantastic table-setter in the same way that Gazillionaire’s opening monologue flaying every demographic in the first two rows preps the crowd for a wild ride in “Absinthe.” In something of a tribute to Cahill’s portrayal, guests at the show’s Spiegeltent in Edinburgh have actually walked out of “Atomic” during that opening number.
Walk-outs were a tradition in the early days of “Absinthe,” when cast and crew delighted and kept a running tally of the walkouts on a nightly basis. There are other similarities to Speigelworld’s original hit show, too, with Massey and the swishy preacher played by Damien Warren-Smith who perform an aerial act to “Moon River” that reminds of the clumsy-brilliant Cesarean Silk act in “Absinthe.”
Stimulating side acts are run with comedy as its backdrop. Davide Zongoli performs a pair of aerial pole routines that extend over the audience. The Reverend Gary Starr (Australian clown Damien Warren-Smith) spends much of the performance in stages of undress. More physical prowess is displayed by strap artist Jérôme Simard (The Outlaw) and hand balancer Pavel Stankevich, the town’s mayor and yet another Spiegelworld artist especially proud of his abs.
Saloon inhabitants and Peter Harding and Suzanne Cleary (cousins Paddy and Bridie O’Skunkton) unleash a fast-paced hand-tap routine — also displayed during “Vegas Nocturne” at the Cosmo five years ago. And Atomic’s visiting nun, Sister Maria Immaculator Chorizo Perez Perez Perez Lopez (Fouzia ‘Fofo’ Raquez) plays “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy” on xylophone with a ping-pong ball. It’s another routine that defies specific description. Suffice to say, you’ll never see it in church.
The show has achieved Mollison’s objective to present a variety of acts in seamless fashion.
“This is not the variety show where a host comes out and says, ‘OK, here’s a strap act!’ ” Mollison says. “Which is fine, but we wanted to move it forward to something that is more immersive for the audience, where you could lose yourself in the story and the characters. We wanted to create a character for every act.”
Mollison says not every artist is comically adept.
— John Katsilometes (@johnnykats) August 6, 2019
“An acrobat might be a genius acrobat, but might not be the greatest actor, or might not be funny,” he says. “But with this company, they are hilarious. The simplest comedy has come out of strap artists, or pole artists, and you add to that really great comedians, some of the best comedians we have seen in years, and you end up with this show you can lose yourself in.”
Mollison’s own review, of course, must be couched in his own personal, financial and artistic investment in the production. But the show has proven a critical standout among the 4,000 performances in 500 venues at the monthlong Festival Fringe, drawing five-star reviews from the Times of London and the Scotsman, both of which cover the Fringe extensively every year.
McCrystal, especially, has been lauded in reviews for his intensive work on the production. A celebrated comedy writer, he has crafted the funny in familiar titles such as the Broadway run of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” the “Paddington” children’s film series, English National Opera’s “Iolanthe” and every show by the English troupe Giffords Circus. He also worked with Massey in developing the first clown act in “Zumanity,” and both have said the experience was artistically frustrating, as the producers continued cutting the comedy from the show.
Previously, McCrystal has said, “Cirque is not a conducive environment to make comedy. They are awful to work for if you’re a clown.” A day after the “Atomic” opener, he says, “I think when you go to see a circus, particularly Cirque du Soleil, you see these kind of God-like creatures do their acts … I want people to see their friends doing the act, not a stranger.”
Massey spent a short stint working with McCrystal in the early days of “Zumanity.” She says, “Cirque isn’t my kind of company, because it’s very regimented … it’s just they don’t do the kind of funny that I like.”
‘A joyous room’
In “Atomic,” Massey drives the production. She’s a confident and naturally gifted performer whose onstage experience is evident from the moment Boozy Skunkton starts cracking her whip at her castmates.
“Having worked for Cal for 20 years on and off, he’s a master in creating a joyous room, like from the onset,” Massey says. “And not just in the room, but outside, so everyone really feels like a gang, so it means the people who do not normally do comedy, find themselves doing comedy.”
— John Katsilometes (@johnnykats) August 6, 2019
McCrystal has infused laughs into every act, and from every performer.
“That was my choice, and I think (the cast) were surprised about how funny it became,” McCrystal says. “I really love the conversation between the audience and the company when there’s laughter, and it’s a conversation. You say something and you get a response.”
The crowd is in the show throughout, as the night starts and ends with an open food fight with real bread, and a mannequin cowboy with arrows protruding from his back is dragged from the stage. Shows in Edinburgh have been interrupted by seemingly drunken audience members asking Boozy where to find the lavatory, or the bar. A widespread salooon scuffle breaks out, too, with nuns swapping punches with acrobats, similar to the closing ruckus in “Blazing Saddles.”
“It’s been a blast. Cal has created a safe space in the rehearsal room, it’s such a fearless place that you just feel comfortable, and normal in that you just get ready to create,” says Cahill, who has been a swing in Tenors of Rock, Bronx Wanderers and “Sex Tips,” among other Vegas gigs. “It’s just been exciting since we started rehearsals.”
The show has been a focal point in its stay in Edinburgh. The production is set in a storied venue, the Palais du Variete Spiegeltent in the Fringe center George Square, similar to the first “Absinthe” Spiegeltent in New York and the current venue at Caesars Palace. But in Las Vegas, the former home of The Act is being made into an actual saloon, seating about 250 with the audience looking down on the action.
Mollison explains, “The Atomic Saloon is somewhere between 1850 and 1950, maybe even spans beyond that period, I’m not sure. Maybe it jumps around a bit. It’s certainly based on one of those old saloons.”
Specifically, Spiegelworld reps visited the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings, which dates to 1913 and with a design that could have been the setting for the TV show “Bonanza.” It is the spot where, legendarily, Clark Gable drank away the pain after learning his wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash.
“We were so inspired by that place, and who actually focuses on the history of the West?” Mollison asks, rhetorically. “Where is that in Vegas right now?”
But the show’s adult tenor (tickets are limited to ages 18 and older) is its very appeal. This is a Wild West show, emphasis on wild, for a Las Vegas Strip audience looking for a naughty night out.
“We think we will have an audience in Las Vegas for this show,” Mollison says.
During a break in the show’s opening week, McCrystal recalls meeting his comic inspiration at a club in London a year ago: Brooks himself, who had been a fan of “One Man, Two Guvnors.”
“So I felt courage to go up to him and say, ‘Mr. Brooks, I’m Cal McCrystal, I believe you enjoyed ‘One Man, Two Guvnors,’ and he’s going, ‘Oh, my God, you’re the guy that did this show!’ ” McCrystal says. “I said to him, ‘I just want to let you know that whenever I’m interviewed in the press, and they say, “What are your influences?” they always expect me to say Buster Keaton or something, but I say, “No. It’s Mel Brooks.”
Brooks answered with something of a stamp of approval: “And you are perfectly entitled to say that!” The tradition blazes on.
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian.
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats! podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.
What: “Atomic Saloon Show”
When: 8 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; 7 and 9 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays (dark Wednesdays) starting Sept. 8.
Where: Atomic Saloon, second level of Grand Canal Shoppes
Tickets: $68 and up (minus fees); intended for ages 18 and older (spiegelworld.com)