As the co-producer of a new show on the Strip extolled the acting virtues of Kendra Wilkinson, my mind flashed on David Hasselhoff dressed as a New York skyscraper.
It was a decade ago. Hasselhoff was signed for a limited run in “The Producers” at Paris Theater, where he played the role of flamboyant director Roger De Bris. Producers of “The Producers” had already lured TV star Tony Danza of “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss” into the role of Max Bialystock (countering the starring role of John O’Hurley in “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at Wynn Las Vegas). They sought to further illuminate the star wattage by hiring Hasselhoff, who was famous for his roles in such TV vehicles as “Knight Rider” and “Baywatch.”
In his signature scene, as fans of the film and stage version of show well remember, Hasselhoff-as-De Bris saunters down a spiral staircase in a full-length ball gown. As he said, “I should explain. I’m going to the choreographer’s ball this evening. There is a prize for best costume. I’m supposed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, but I think I look more like the Chrysler Building!”
The show soon closed, marking the culmination of the short-lived “Broadway West” phenomenon on the Strip. The moment that movement dissipated can be marked by Hasselhoff dressed as the Chrysler Building.
But the idea of tying stars — especially TV stars — to Vegas productions is still a significant marketing strategy. This year, “Chippendales” at the Rio has again found a role for the dancing supermodel Tyson Beckford (the show has previously showcased “90201” and “Sharknado” star Ian Ziering, and former “General Hospital” cast member and current Republican California Congressional hopeful Antonio Sabato Jr., among other famous guest stars).
Wilkinson, star of the We TV show “Kendra on Top,” is joined by Jai Rodriguez (from the “Queer Eye” series on Bravo) in “Sex Tips For a Straight Woman From a Gay Man.” The comedy, which opened for previews Saturday, is staged in the same hotel as “The Producers,” at Anthony Cools’ room at Paris Las Vegas.
The similarities end there. “Sex Tips” is not merely an effort to dress the stars in funny costumes, teach them a few lines and send them on a promotional tour. Wilkinson and Rodriguez are carrying the narrative throughout, actually acting, as would any professional thespian. The show’s writer and co-producer, Matt Murphy, recalls Wilkinson arriving to her first “table reading” of the show — and not reading.
“She came in, totally off-book, on her first day of rehearsal,” Murphy says during a chat during a rehearsal break in the 214-seat theater. “We all have scripts, but hers is closed. Then she recites it, word perfect — and I’m like a crazy person about this, I know every ‘the’ and ‘a’ in the script. But she’d been working on it for three months, had hired an acting coach, everything.”
While Rodriguez has experience in the Toronto company of “Rent,” playing Angel, Wilkinson has never performed live theater. It’s not a surprise that learning the show has been the greatest challenge of her career, and the responsibility to deliver is pronounced.
There is no hiding behind slick TV editing on a live stage in Las Vegas. The jokes draw laughter when delivered properly; crickets when not. A slip in timing or a lost line wrecks a scene. A dropped prop is the topic of conversation when ticket-holders file from the theater.
For further artistic challenges, Cher choreographer Denise Faye is designing a dance scene at the end of “Sex Tips.” Wilkinson did appear on “Dancing With the Stars,” eliminated in the seventh week in 2011, but otherwise …
“It’s so out of the norm for me,” she says. “When I came in, I was just saying, ‘I don’t want to ruin this for anybody — the writer, the producer, the director. I couldn’t say, ‘Yes,’ and then let everybody down. I have no experience with any of this. But I took the gamble, and I have confidence that I didn’t have at the beginning.”
If there is a model for “Sex Tips,” it’s Wilkinson’s rival Holly Madison. Along with Bridget Marquardt, the two starred on the E! series “The Girls Next Door,” revolving around their lives with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. Madison used her fame from that show as a springboard to her starring role in “Peepshow” at Planet Hollywood.
The show “Holly’s World” ran for two seasons during “Peepshow,” which led to the show’s most successful sales period. “Kendra on Top” producers have recorded scenes of Wilkinson and Rodriguez accepting their roles and rehearsing in the run-up to the opening of “Sex Tips.” The show will be featured regularly on the TV series, which relaunches June 23.
Wilkinson and Rodriguez are committed through “Sex Tips” 12-week run. She and her husband, ex-NFL star Hank Baskett, have a family in L.A., which complicates the notion of her extending her contract — if the show does well enough to merit an extension. Rodriguez, the show’s comic focal point, could conceivably remain.
The larger question: Is “Sex Tips” a strong enough production to succeed in Las Vegas without a celeb headliner?
“We’ve run 3 1/2 years in New York without celebrities, and two years selling out big theaters across the country,” Murphy says. “But in Las Vegas, we always want to have a headliner in the show.” And in “Sex Tips,” modeling a memorable costume is just the start.