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‘A Musical Tribute to Liberace’ with Wes Winters

Wes Winters has the biggest laugh in Las Vegas.

You may think that out-sized cackle is a fakey stage response to not-so-funny comments from the audience. But it also echoes across the lobby/lounge of magician Steve Wyrick’s theater when the pianist greets well-wishers after “A Musical Tribute to Liberace.” You even hear it when you reach him on the phone.

The laugh also adds confidence to a fleeting moment of seriousness, when Winters talks about the challenge of opening a) an afternoon show b) for a specific, mostly older audience c) in a struggling venue d) during a recession summer: “If I’m here and my name is attached to it, it’s gonna work.”

So far, Winters has no reason to doubt his self-confidence. In the new matinee show inside Wyrick’s theater at the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, you will learn how he taught himself to play piano by ear in the family garage (the piano wouldn’t fit inside the house) while growing up on the far outskirts of Kansas City.

Winters still doesn’t read music, but he can take three song suggestions from the audience and roll them into a medley. By 2003, his mastery of Liberace’s florid keyboard style landed him a gig of nearly five years’ duration at The Liberace Museum.

But just as Liberace became less and less about music over time, it’s clear that Winters’ real strength is his own twist on the late star’s campy brand of showmanship.

Sure, he has the sequined boots and the mirror-paneled grand piano. But he manages to display his own arch personality without it coming off as imitation or spoof. And that’s no mean feat when we’re talking about high-kicking it to “Mame” with three active-senior dancers.

“Liberace did not like impersonators (and) I don’t want to be one,” he tells the audience. That attitude can only help Winters turn a corner he doesn’t reach soon enough in these new surroundings.

One realizes during Winters’ dutiful re-creation of “Theme from Exodus” or “The Impossible Dream” — with plenty of fills and trills to pad otherwise bland, tick-tock arrangements — that Liberace is one Vegas icon who has yet to be rediscovered. Beyond the camp, his music is about as enduring as that of Ferrante & Teicher.

And most Liberace fans weren’t spring chickens when the flamboyant performer died in 1987. No doubt Winters’ shows at the museum attracted any surviving loyalists, or those put in the mood for a tribute show after looking around at the memorabilia.

But move him out of that context, and Winters seems boxed in. He punches things up along the way with a rollicking version of “Kansas City” and his own original ballad, “Send Down an Angel,” where the piano sounds more Elton John than Liberace. He also sings better than the late pianist, and getting away from the piano (albeit to recorded accompaniment) adds variety to the modest affair.

In his previous life, Winters was an efficiency expert for a grocery store chain, so he says he’s a quick study for the business aspects of his operation. Likewise, he has been tweaking the content, and “will continue to do that until I think we have the widest appeal for people coming to town.”

While the Liberace connection helps avoid confusion with, say, an Oscar Peterson tribute, Winters agrees it’s time to “open the door now and start the second half.”

It can’t come soon enough. A laugh and a personality as big as Winters’ shouldn’t have to hide under the shadow of Liberace’s ermine cape.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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