The hair is red. The act is blue.
The leading lady (“That’s no lady!”) has it covered in an impressively uncovered production, “Ester Goldberg’s Totally Outrageous Brunch,” at The Sayers Club at SLS Las Vegas. The show’s open-ended run debuts this weekend, playing Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (Tickets start at $69, not including fees, and are available at the SLS Las Vegas website.)
Ester is an unattached, untethered woman of a certain age. She comes at you with all the nuance of a sequined wrecking ball, floating F-bombs and flaying all cultures and demographics with equal zeal.
“What am I doing in the (expletive) desert, serving brunch to a bunch of drunk tourists?” she asks, from the top.
Ester is the type of naughty great aunt that her creator, Michael Airington, says permeates every family. Maybe you’ve seen her yelling at cocktail servers for free drinks while she plays the penny slots at Four Queens. Her daffy, unfiltered delivery gives her air cover to take on everyone — a red-wigged Don Rickles in drag, if you will.
Ester lacks an “H” in her name, because, as she says, “Barbra Streisand knocked out a consonant and became a millionaire!”
Airington has been developing Ester for nearly 20 years. He is familiar with performing as someone else. He brought a Paul Lynde afternoon production to Windows Showroom at Bally’s in the spring of 2017.
Even a spin through a dress rehearsal this week shows this is a rare Vegas show for myriad reasons. It’s a ticketed, adult (ages 21-over) production staged in the morning and mid-afternoon. Food is served along with the shtick. Want some mirth with your macaroons? Smokin’ dancers with your smoked pork belly? A little keytar with your tartar? This show is for you.
Airington eagerly points to the success of Rickles and the Gazillionaire character in “Absinthe” as those who can destroy an audience with uniformed success.
“We are going after everyone,” Airington said. “People can come in, let their guard down and not be politically correct. It’s not mean, and when Ester talking about Asian drivers or a Mexican taco truck, it’s all meant in fun … everybody has an Ester in their family, whether you’re Asian, black, Chinese, Italian, Jewish or whatever — everyone has an old lady who stands in the corner and says, ‘Screw you!’ “
Though a bold and seemingly high-risk adventure, the show has maximized its chances for success with its experienced production team. Co-producers Dan Chilewich, Kevin Beebee and Steve Wilson worked on the Tony-nominated “A Night With Janis Joplin” on Broadway. Chilewich also worked on “S Wonderful — The New Gershwin Musical,” “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer — The Musical” and “”Over The Rainbow.” Beebee’s resume includes the touring versions of “Wicked,” “Mamma Mia!” “Legally Blonde” and “The Book of Mormon.”
But acclaim on Broadway and across the country doesn’t guarantee success on the hyper-competitive Las Vegas Strip. Here, too, the producers’ experience is evident.
“We consider ourselves New York producers, and we know you have to be a little trepidatious when you come into Vegas. We would never begin to pretend that this is our city and pretend we know everything about it. We don’t. We rely on people we’re putting in the show, and when we’re open — including the crew at SLS — we’ll have 22 Las Vegas locals working on this show. I think that says something.”
The producers say SLS is heavily invested in the show’s marketing — a great start, because shows that close on the Strip typically complain about poor marketing.
“They want this to be one of the entertainment destinations in Las Vegas,” said Beebee, who was impressed with the design of The Sayers Club, which is both gorgeous and equipped to handle aerial rigs.
“The room is stunning,” Beebe said. “It’s going to blow people away when they see the production.”
The show is an example of a buyer’s market among highly capable performers looking for work in Las Vegas. Anne Martinez (of “Baz” and “Alice,” who is now a co-producer), the great comic impressionist John Di Domenico (who has toured the world with his devastatingly funny Donald Trump act), Cassie Stone (late of “Zarkana” and “The World’s Greatest Rock Show”), burlesque star and former “Jubilee” dancer Sabina Kelley, blazing vocalist Janien Valentine (the female lead of Frankie Scinta’s “The Showman” production at South Point Showroom), dancer/acrobat April Leopardi (“Zombie Burlesque” and “Alice”), ex-Cirque artist Mathieu Bolillo and the strap act Duo Vadore.
The show, too, incorporates live music. Bandleader Aaron Fuller piloted “Alice”; the ribald Sarah Hester Ross plays keyboard and (yes!) keytar and performs an insanely funny song about redheads; and bassist Dennis Blair happens to be a celebrated stand-up comic who spent more than 20 years opening for George Carlin and Rodney Dangerfield.
Airington has been developing his Ester Goldberg character for about a decade, pitching concepts to Caesars Entertainment and Hooters before he opted for the obvious — seeking out officials at SLS Las Vegas, as he lives across the street at Allure. He actually found information about hotel owner Alex Meruelo on LinkedIn and tracked town Meruelo Entertainment President Jeff Henry on the networking website.
The two convened in April, with Henry explaining the hotel wanted a brunch concept. Airington and his production partners wanted to push the Ester show. They connected with the Ester/brunch concept.
“We knew right away that the casino wanted to do the brunch, and we wanted something that had a variety-show type feel for Las Vegas,” Beebe said. “We looked at entertainment and the brunch and looked at how to we fuse the two together and make it work. It’s kind of win-win for everyone.”
Despite Ester’s own unvarnished attitude, Airington said the brunch show adds an air of refinement to the Strip’s entertainment offerings. As he said, “Mr. Meruelo wants to bring back entertainment with food, where people would not be coming in with a fanny pack, sandals and black socks.”
Unintentionally or not, Airington might have just described a possible character if this show takes off. Maybe we’ll see a Mr. Goldberg, if this show takes off.
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.