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Usher’s ‘Backstory’ tells his story, from beneath the Colosseum

Updated August 8, 2021 - 5:01 pm

Fans wearing pink VIP lanyards are led out of the doors to the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, into the hot early evening. They walk toward the ride-hailing and tour bus boarding area.

This is when you know something’s odd.

Usher’s show is inside, of course. These ticket holders are not boarding a bus. But rare is the show when a Strip headliner directs fans to actually leave the building, before the performance.

The dozens of fans finally head through heavy, unmarked metal doors, the kind roadies push through with their lumbering equipment carts. There is a flight of stairs, and another, heading down. You finally meet someone you might recognize, if you’ve spent enough time in Las Vegas.

Eric Jordan Young, in a pearl-white suit, red fedora and matching hanky. “Is that you? What is happening here?” He only grins and nods. EJY is clearly ready to perform. But what, and where?

In moments, you’re carried into a pop-up gentlemen’s club. It seems like a mere corner of Sapphire’s Gentlemen’s Club, an athletic woman spinning around a pole. It is raining cash. One gentleman near the stage is flinging bills to the sky, and flashing a grin that can be caught across the room.

He looks just like Usher, actually. But it can’t be. He’s getting ready for tonight’s show. Or, wait, this is the way he gets ready for tonight’s show. It’s his backstage hang, his backstory, called “Backstory Pass.”

This is an exceedingly rare entertainment production — yep, an immersive experience — taking place in the very back-of-house enclave beneath the Colosseum. It is the first time a Vegas hotel-casino has allowed an immersive production company take over a full, back-of-house production.

“I really enjoyed working together with my friends at OTBA (executive producer Out Of The Box Amusements) to create the first ever pre-show immersive experience for a Vegas residency,” Usher said in an email statement. “In keeping with the authenticity of the residency as a whole, we made it a point to hire a very diverse group of all-local Las Vegas talent.”

The star often shows up at “Backstory Pass,” and has welcomed such famous friends as Kevin Hart, Floyd Mayweather, Taye Diggs and Jermaine Dupri to the space. No photos or cellphone use is permitted in Club Ushh, where Usher usually hangs and has been known to teach VIPs the proper “make it rain” technique.

The visitors seem to be OK with just letting him be among the crowd. They, too, are part of the story.

“The ‘Backstory’ pass experience is to take someone on an immersive journey through certain eras and cultural moments that have influenced me throughout my life,” Usher says. “I want to create a real-life experience for people so that they too can be inspired by pivotal moments in Black music and culture including Le Grand Duc jazz club of 1920s Paris, the infamous Magic City of Atlanta and a ’90s New York City block party during the dawn of hip hop.”

The pre-show features a half-dozen independent, intimate venues arranged to paint a full picture of Usher’s life. It’s storytelling, replete with singing, music, dancing, amid a torrent of Ushh Bucks. Tickets are purchased separate from the Usher residency show (at $206 apiece, not including fees). The experience starts at 8 p.m., and lasts about an hour before Usher hits the stage

The “Backstory” tour includes:

*Backstage, the main foyer, the holding area for those who purchased the VIP access.

*Club Ushh, the 1920s-themed tribute to Le Duc jazz club in Paris. This is where Skye Dee Miles and her killer band, joined by Young, sing and lead the dance party in cozy quarters.

*Ushh City, Usher’s rowdy version of Magic City adult club in his hometown of Atlanta.

*The Counting Room, connected to Ushh City, is papered with Ushh Bucks and the Den Mother’s lair (she counts the money in there). Martha Watson, who happens to be a four-time Olympic qualifier in the long jump from 1964-1972 and also a longtime Caesars Palace casino dealer.

*The Friends Room, the star’s private hideaway for one-on-one visits, surrounded by shelves of such family artifacts as a vintage 1940s Remington typewriter, a Technics boom box from the ’80s, and (in a real treasure for longtime Las Vegans) a UNLV Runnin’ Rebels game program from 1989-1990 NCAA championship season.

*The Future Room, a mirrored hall where guests are invited to reflect (spiritually and for real) and consider their fate.

*The Block Party, a dance fest spilling to the Colosseum loading dock, involving all of Usher’s two dozen backing dancers and several “Backstory” cast members.

The project is filled with Las Vegas entertainment creative types, in partnership with the production company OTBA (headed up by some of the visionaries behind The Box in New York and, later, The Act at The Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes); and Caesars Entertainment (which managed to adjust concert protocols to allow a show underneath its signature venue).

Cognac company Rémy Martin underwrites the whole shebang, which is why the bar is stacked with that product.

Among those first contacted by co-producers Randy Weiner (owner of “The Box”) and Andrew Katz was Majestic Theatre founder Troy Heard, who prior to Majestic operated Onyx Theater in the Commercial Center. The production team also knew the husband-wife team of Spiegelworld vets Allegra Libonati and Brett Alters, both of “Opium,” who have known Weiner and Andrew dating to the days of The Box in New York.

Libonati says “Backstory” is “the soil, and the concert is the flower.”

Heard has been featuring such shows as “Hot Trash” and “Miss Behave Game Show” at Majestic Theatre, on Main Street in the Arts District, as he’s worked on the Usher project.

“This was a way to explore how to enhance the meet-and-greet experience,” Heard said. “We knew we were not going to get an A-to-Z narrative. What we’re after is getting the flavors of Usher, to know what has been important to him leading to this residency.”

Heard was contacted in April. The team has enjoyed an inordinate amount of time to develop “Backstory Pass.” Usher, of course, is the first Colosseum headliner to return during the pandemic.

“Usually you bump in and bump out in two or three days for something like this,” Heard said. “We have had the luxury of time.”

The show’s cast was built with star-quality Vegas entertainers. Kareem Gwinn is a champion breakdancer and former “Love” cast member. Michael Moloi is also an original cast member and creator of “Love.” Tiffany De Alba is an ex-“Zumanity” and “Love” performer featured in the Rémy Martin/Usher collaboration “Team Up for Excellence.” Jason Nious and Khalid Freeman, former Cirque performers and founders of the performance group Molodi. Dane Clarke is an original cast member of “Le Reve” who created the “Splash Solo” act (breakdancing in water).

Miles is simply made to be the singer at Le Duc. Her performance seems pulled directly from her seven-year run at Rose. Rabbit. Lie. at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Young co-starred in “Starlight Express” at the then-Las Vegas Hilton, “Vegas! The Show” at Saxe Theater at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, “Rock of Ages” at the Rio and also co-directed “Baz” at Palazzo Theater.

Remarkably, Miles and Young, had not worked together before “Backstory Pass,” though both have been in Vegas for years.

“My buy-in was just being part of the amazing backstory of live music in America,” Miles said. “It’s great to be chosen for something like this, and to work for someone of Usher’s caliber.”

Young has actually worked with Usher before, in 2006, when Usher premiered on Broadway as Billy Flynn in “Chicago.” Young was Usher’s understudy in that role.

“I was there when he had that moment, that incredible experience of being on Broadway,” Young said. “I can say, in my opinion, he would have been cast in the role regardless of his celebrity. He was great.”

Today, Young portrays a singer based on Sammy Davis Jr., and also Ben Vereen, who also famously portrayed Flynn and Usher’s godfather.

“I remember, after a show, the two meeting at the water cooler and Ben putting his hands on Usher’s shoulders to coach him on some different moments in the show,” Young said. “This is all destiny, and it proves what a small world we have in the entertainment community. It’s like, this was all meant to be.”

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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