Updated September 23, 2018 - 9:01 pm
The famous Vegas mob attorney is attired in his familiar pinstripe suit, seated on a tall bar stool, his ever-present Bombay Sapphire martini in one hand a microphone in the other.
At his side is a similarly suited, real-life mob overlord.
In full courtroom flourish, Oscar Goodman relishes this chance to question Michael Franzese, his newfound buddy and reformed mafia kingpin.
Franzese, a reformed (he is always quick to add that distinction) Colombo crime family “capo,” is also eager to address the forgiving audience.
The two are appearing in a mob-friendly event — Goodman’s dinner-series talk at Oscar’s Steakhouse at the Plaza.
Goodman’s first question, “How are you still alive?”
Franzese answers, “Because most of the people who want to see me dead are dead, or they’re in prison.”
A murmur is sent through the audience. The show is on.
The mob meets a musical
The Franzese of today is indeed a public figure. He never entered the witness protection program despite having a contract out on his life in another lifetime. Rather, he’s a prominent member of the Vegas entertainment scene who is spearheading an original stage show that could only happen in Vegas: “A Mob Story,” an unlikely mix of musical theater themed for organized crime narrated by a former mobster in an autobiographical role.
The show opened for previews at the refurbished Plaza Showroom on Sept. 12; its premiere is Tuesday. “A Mob Story” has an open-ended run. It’s the largest-scale resident show on Fremont Street.
Impressively fit and greeting you with a hard gaze, the 67-year-old Franzese presents himself as advertised. He is an ex-mobster, a “made man,” the son of Colombo crime family under-boss John “Sonny” Franzese, who was in and out of federal prison several times over a 50-plus-year period ending just last year.
Upon his release in June 2017, the elder Franzese was 100 years old — the oldest individual in federal custody.
Recalling a former life
For decades, Michael Franzese lived “the life,” as he refers to his role in the mob. He served several years federal time, too, mostly because of his involvement in running a gasoline bootlegging racket in partnership with the Russian mafia. That stretch is covered in “A Mob Story,” as a video of a helicopter dropping money on folks waiting to visit the Statue of Liberty is played in the theater while cash (between $100-$500) falls from the ceiling.
Franzese long ago disavowed the mob, saying that it was the influence of his wife, Camille, that led him to his career as a best-selling author, highly paid motivational speaker and — now — executive producer of a Las Vegas musical.
“I owe my life today to Camille,” Franzese says. “She led me away from that life. If it wasn’t for her, I would be dead or in prison. No doubt about it.”
The production boasts classic Las Vegas pedigree. The show’s concept was devised by co-producer, writer and director Jeff Kutash, whose history in Las Vegas dates to 1974, when his dance show “Good Ol’ Rock ’n’ Roll” opened for Elvis at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1974.
Kutash ran “Splash” at the Riviera from 1985, when it was awash in cash, through 2006. He also delivered “Dancing Machine” to the Golden Nugget in the days when Steve Wynn ran the hotel, bringing street dancing to downtown Las Vegas.
In those days, Kutash formed a vital bond with Franzese. He and Camille actually met through the Las Vegas producer. In 1984, Kutash was choreographer of the feature film “Nights of the City” — one of Franzese’s side interests was founding the movie company Motion Picture Marketing, producers of that project. Kutash furnished the dance troupe, and Camille Garcia was part of that team.
As the story goes, Camille was getting out of a hotel pool in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when Franzese — still entrenched in the Colombo family — asked Kutash to set up a meeting. This was just as Kutash was about to launch “Splash,” and his friendship with Franzese — proof that the producer has been connected to organized crime — has survived through decades.
Michael and Camille have been married for 33 years, and Camille is a co-producer of “A Mob Story.” The couple’s daughter, Julia, is a dancer in the show (her highlight scene recalls mob mistress Virginia Hill).
Through time, and long after “Splash” closed, Kutash told Franzese he wanted to do another show in Las Vegas. Not a sequel to “Splash,” but an original show filled with dancing and related to the mob.
“I told him I loved it because I always loved musicals,” Franzese says. “I trusted his creativity, and that he’d put something good together and then we just started building. Creatively, Jeff did 90 percent of the work, and he said from the start that he wanted to integrate my story into the story.”
I never glorify my former life. Never. I present it in a way where it’s accurate. We tell the story in this show, and though it is very entertaining, it’s not going to be a tribute to the mob.
It’s no mob tribute
Franzese says he is not interested in fabricating or glorifying the mob culture.
“I never glorify my former life. Never,” he says. “I present it in a way where it’s accurate. We tell the story in this show, and though it is very entertaining, it’s not going to be a tribute to the mob.”
Kutash has assembled a cast of 22 dancers and actors. Along with Franzese, Marcel Forestieri, Joey Spinella and Sina Foley help carry the story. The lead choreographer, Brian Friedman, has worked with such stars as Britney Spears, Cher, Beyonce and Mariah Carey. The choreography team is further boosted by Will “Willdabeast” Adams, Janelle Ginestra, Tracy Phillips and Shannon Mather.
World-class set designer Andy Walmsley, an Emmy Award-winner for his work on “American Idol,” has led a full renovation of the showroom stage. Extensive, and expensive, lighting and projection screens flank and expose the stage. A catwalk has been built into the original performance space.
Kutash is striving for individuality, not a knock-off of “Splash” or any shows that have opened and closed since that production went dark.
The producer says, “What’s been done has been done; in Las Vegas, you can’t do the same thing again.”
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at jkatsilometes @reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.
“A Mob Story” boasts impressive dancing and stagecraft. The costumes pop, even as some of the numbers reach beyond the mob’s sobering history in Las Vegas. A number set in the steam room at Caesars Palace plays like a scene in a male revue, with the cast smiling and grooving in towels and tighty-whiteys.
Somehow, director Jeff Kutash has managed to fit that scene, and some operatic moments, in with Franzese’s penetrating stories of taking the mafia “cosa nostra” oath.
How these two cultures can co-mingle in downtown Las Vegas remains to be seen. Selling tickets to any stage show in this city is a tricky prospect. The heady days when a campy water show like “Splash” could fill a showroom void are gone.
But the mob does enjoy an undefinable lure. It is impossible not to be taken to another place as Franzese talks of his former life.
“One of the horrors of that life is that you make a mistake, you walk into a room with your best friend, you might now walk out again,” Franzese says, as matter-of-factly as if he were reciting a lunch order. “The violence is something you have to accept.”
Franzese recalls a night many moons ago when there was “talk on the street that I was maybe making more money than I was turning in,” and he was walking along a street in Brooklyn with a guy behind him — a friend of his — who might finish that walk alone.
“I can still almost hear the crickets chirping, and kind of smell the flowers from that night,” he says. “Everything became so keen to me. It was almost as if I was robotic, because you become so programmed in that life. But you do think, ‘This is it.’ It showed me that I could face death if I had to.”
Michel Franzese walked away, to tell his story in Las Vegas, of all places. He is asked how such a story can work as a piece of musical theater.
“The topic is so authentic and intriguing around the world, and I’ve spoken everywhere,” Franzese says. “It works. So, why wouldn’t it work in Vegas? I’m asking myself the same way I’m asking you. I hope I’m right.”
— John Katsilometes