The guy is slick.
You might expect him to be, having entertained people one way or another since he was a kid. Still, it might have been a while since you’ve seen such an effortless display of old-fashioned showmanship.
Frankie Moreno says, “Tonight is only as good as you guys want to make it,” or “Is everybody having a good time?” and it doesn’t even sound smarmy. (Of the latter, he adds, “I know everyone asks that, but seriously: Is everybody having a good time?”)
He will sing a standard such as “Night and Day” without irony, then shift right into an original that blends right in, without announcing itself as your chance to hit the restroom. That’s because the originals are slick, too, recalling a line from Jeff Bridges’ fallen country star in “Crazy Heart”: “That’s the way it is with good ones. You’re sure you’ve heard it before.”
Moreno even came to his new showroom at the Stratosphere via an old-fashioned and almost obsolete path: playing in the lounges for years. That might have been a normal thing in the 1960s or ’70s, when the lounges were simply the way you spent your late nights in Las Vegas. But as the 2000s rolled on, Moreno became an increasingly rare alternative to the clubs and DJs.
You can see the appeal. The piano-pounding singer is not a total “retro” throwback musically — he’s as much funny Chris Isaak as matinee-idol Michael Buble, with Billy Joel knocking around there somewhere, too — but he’s old-Vegas in attitude. It’s a party. You’re invited.
At one point, Moreno comes down from the stage during a guitar solo to sit with a woman in the audience: “This band kind of sucks. Wanna get out of here?” Later, he rolls through the house with a bottle of Crown Royal, pouring shots for anyone with a glass to spare.
And now the Stratosphere has thrown its own resources into making Moreno a ticketed star. This risk is also a departure in a “rent the room” marketplace: a casino getting behind a singer who is an unknown beyond his fan base, with nothing to trade on but his good looks. And a good band. And good songs. And a good rapport with the crowd.
This might just work.
Moreno is a pleasant, one-size-fits-all singer in the Buble vein. Unlike, say, Lyle Lovett, you wouldn’t know the voice immediately, but neither is there a danger of finding it too quirky or unusual. The distinctiveness comes in the crisply mixed arrangements and the band itself. A three-piece male horn section is balanced by a three-woman string ensemble, eliminating any electric keyboards.
A quote of “25 or 6 to 4” fits an outfit that recalls the adventurous days of the band Chicago. Jennifer Lynn does a classical violin duet with Moreno at the piano, before Russ Letizia takes over with an electric guitar solo. It’s all building up to a “Kashmir”-trippy tune called “Black Mascara.”
That’s balanced by fresh arrangements of “Mack the Knife” or “Eleanor Rigby,” which do something different enough to justify their existence. By the time Moreno is doing his own little Cirque du Soleil act all over the grand piano for the Jerry Lee Lewis finale, you figure anyone who showed up to this modestly priced effort for whatever reason will leave a satisfied customer.
So it’s a challenge similar to the long fight Clint Holmes had at Harrah’s Las Vegas. Most of the work will be in getting them in, trying to explain who he is.
Moreno’s part of the task is small by comparison. It’s mostly a matter of adjustment, based on “the second official night,” as he dubbed it last week, and his first with at least as many “civilians” as friends and family. As he segues from loyal fans to — at least according to plan — ticket-buyers who are less familiar with him, he will need to be more … what’s a good word? Specific, perhaps.
This guy is so slick, he’s hard to pin down. He puts words in the audience’s mouth: “Who the hell is this guy?” But he only gives an answer in pieces.
Another joke was good enough for the lounges: “For those of us who have never seen us … you have now.” But what would really help at this juncture is a narrative. Holmes’ show really made the leap once he gave the show a framework to explain who he is and put his songs into context.
Moreno doesn’t get close to this until fairly late in the set. A video of his travels with bassist brother Tony yields to the star’s taking a seat amid the audience for his song “So Far,” grounding it with more vocal nuance than the songs before it.
Maybe he figures the fans know all his stories already. They can just ask him, often while drinking with him. But they will understand some need for repetition in this setting. They want this to work. And if you go, you will, too.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.Review
11 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Stratosphere, 2000 Las Vegas Blvd. South
$32.99; $21.99 for locals (380-7711)