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‘Legends In Concert,’ ‘Greatest Piano Men’ are Strip shows that get it right

Updated March 30, 2019 - 8:09 pm

Simplicity is an elusive quality in Las Vegas. The recent production shows to arrive on the scene, and those that are planned, offer great entertainment. But they are not always so easy to explain.

“Adult space farce” might cover “Opium,” but there is so much more to that show at the Cosmopolitan. “Tented acrobatics, no seating” is accurate for “Fuerza Bruta” at Excalibur. But again, you’re selling a great show short.

So we have two shows, one a proven commodity and another new to Vegas, that cut to the chase. “Legends In Concert” and “The Greatest Piano Men.”

Righteous. Simple titles that hit the mark. Bless these shows.

Coincidentally, these shows that embrace superstar tributes to varying degrees celebrated opening nights this week. “The Greatest Piano Men” was first, performing a 10 p.m. Tuesday show at Donny & Marie Showroom at Flamingo Las Vegas.

“Legends In Concert” opened in its new home at its newly minted, eponymous theater at the Tropicana on Wednesday.

In a city where few shows are not somehow inspired by, or connected to, another production, these two shows are inevitably linked. “Legends” left a void for “Piano Men” to fill by pulling out of the Flamingo at the end of December. Consequently, Caesars Entertainment needs a hit to complement the Donny & Marie show, and is giving “Piano Men” a monthlong shot (the show alternates 4 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. show times).

Similarly, Tropicana has been looking for a proven, ready-made production to anchor its main theater, and found “Legends” a willing partner for its 1,100-seat theater.

We’ll tackle these productions in the order in which they premiered, or re-appeared, this week:

Men of Piano

The new show at Flamingo, in a five-week test run, is not presenting itself as a true “Legends”-style show. The creative team, including co-producer, director and lead performer Donnie Kehr, wince at the comparison and even sidestep the term “tribute” so not to be compared to “Legends.”

Describe it however you want, but this is a show that pays tribute to the music and images of superstar artists.

Showcased are a rotating group of expert pianists — Kehr, Pete Peterkin, Greg Ransom and Steven “Hoops” Snyder — performing as Billy Joel, Elton John, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Stevie Wonder and Little Richard.

The performers wear costumes (including Charles’ and Wonder’s sunglasses) and mimic the characters’ mannerisms and vocal stylings. Little Richard dons a sequined jacket and dances — as Little Richard — with audience members. Each artist is introduced with mini-bios, such as, “He was an R&B star in the making at age 12!” but stop short of using the real entertainers’ names. Instead, Kehr calls over to Ransom by his real name, not as Elton.

“This isn’t the traditional tribute show,” Executive Producer Steve Leber says. “These four guys are amazing performers who take the audience through the history of the greatest piano players the world has known. There’s nothing like it on any stage, anywhere.”

Whether you find comparisons elsewhere — and if you attend enough shows in Las Vegas, you will — the production moves and musicianship is robust. Envision a highly produced version of a rowdy dueling pianos performance (a concept that is remarkably successful in Vegas), adding a third instrument and a smoking backing band, and you’ll get “The Greatest Piano Men.”

Kehr is a born performer, having originated the role of Norm Waxman in “Jersey Boys” on Broadway and also in the Clint Eastwood-directed film. He’s also performed as Tommy DeVito in the stage show, including a brief run in Las Vegas a decade ago.

Kehr is the de facto captain of the craft, and his portrayal of Joel, especially, is spot-on, playing the harmonica and piano and singing, “Piano Man” and thundering through “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Ransom, ever beaming behind the mic, performs a solid Elton, replete with the fancy glasses and the familiar tux tailcoat.

But again, there are times when you are not sure if a performer is supposed to be the artist, or representing himself. Peterkin-as-Charles walks down the steps, unaided and unsteadily, to his spot at the piano. Peterkin is not blind, but he’s paying tribute to Charles, who was. Shouldn’t the faux-Elton, or real Ransom, rise to help him find his mark? Are we in character or not?

It’s a minor moment, maybe. But such events take you out of the performance, and make you wonder about the concept.

Fortunately, Vegas music fans will love the power generated by the trifecta of pianos onstage, and the show’s powerful backing musicians. This is essentially Donny & Marie’s backing band in action, and one of my standing ovations was for Rocco Barbato’s sax solo during “Italian Restaurant.”

Steven Lee is on guitar, Rochon Westmoreland on bass, Joey Finger on drums with Carol Lynn Townes and Francine Davis on backing vocals. These folks are topnotch artists. They deserve to be showcased in a show that is fun but takes itself seriously. When Joel — er, Kehr — leads the crowd through “Piano Man,” you just have to sing back. It’s a moment not so readily achieved, and the piano men should own it.

‘Legends’ live on

The “Legends” cast has finally hit the mark where the show is actually older than some of the stars it presents. The show is 35. Lady Gaga, portrayed by Tierney Allen in the current cast at the Trop, turned 33. Bruno Mars, in the extended cast, is also 33.

The production is at once refining classic Vegas and updating its superstar lineup. The significant upgrade from its days at the Flamingo, where it performed for five years, is more extensive video footage of all of its stars, and the return of the Showgirl. Uppercase is on purpose there. The iconic Strip dancers are sharing the headlining bill with Elvis (Cody Slaughter), Whitney Houston (Jazmine Katrina) and Frank Sinatra (Brian Duprey).

Fun fact about the feathers: They are costumes from “Showgirls” at the Rio, the production that preceded Penn & Teller’s arrival at the hotel in 2002. Single-named, ex-showgirl Mistinguett, the well-known producer/director/choreographer, furnished those costumes.

“Legends” can be relied upon to groove, regardless of the performer at the center. The dancer team backs every performer, striding up the stage’s dual staircase even while playing prop instruments. Slaughter, as Elvis, is a real find, an Elvis whose looks and voice are on the money and whose moves remind of the King in his performing prime.

It’s been noted, here and elsewhere, that a youthful Elvis is a tough role to fill. The talent pool in 2019 for such a performer is not so deep. But Slaughter is one, and he’s just fun to watch. He reminds of why the pre-Vegas Elvis was so appealing in the first place.

Allen-as-Gaga has her moments at the piano, reviving Gaga’s percussive body language and preachy stage manner. “I hear there’s a Lady across the street! Singing these same songs!” she calls out, as if insulted. At the end of her set, I laughed when she announced, “I was born this way!” Funny line, coming from a tribute artist.

Duprey, too, is convincing as Ol’ Blue Eyes, clearly studying such nuances as the way Sinatra leaned to the side and tossed the dice during “Luck Be a Lady.” Someone thought to tuck an orange pocket square (Sinatra’s favorite color) into his jacket.

And Jazmine, as she is typically introduced, confidently delivers Houston’s famous vocal range. “I Will Always Love You,” especially, rocks the theater.

“Legends” also continues to promote musical credibility with its backing band of music director/bassist Howard Stroman, sax master Joe Escriba, guitarist Jimmy Powers, and drummer Ryan Krieger.

“Legends” long ago found a formula that works: An evolving cast of famous figures portrayed by talented artists, backed by serious musicians and dancers. Everything should be so simple.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts.Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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