Jabbawockeez dance troupe still cresting as show celebrates opening today

Onstage, the Jabbawockeez are a masked democracy. Their blank white faces force viewers to divert attention to their footwork and body language.

Offstage? The break-dance stars have been in the Monte Carlo’s Ignite lounge for less than 10 minutes before a pack of female admirers swoops in on their post-rehearsal happy hour. No anonymity here.

Manager Fred Nguyen just smiles. This bodes well for the new show that celebrates its VIP opening today.

A hip-hop dance troupe replacing tuxedoed magician Lance Burton? It may be the ultimate generational divide on the Las Vegas Strip. You either get it or you don’t. And the surrounding women are well-timed evidence: These guys are rock stars. Get it?

Nguyen can show you iPhone photos of a shopping mall in the Philippines packed to Beatlemania density. He can tell you how Jabbawockeez already has become a spinoff brand of merchandise. And that the brand is expanding to music, where iTunes sales of a single, "Robot Remains," paved the way for an upcoming full-length album.

"This is an entire business now. One aspect of the business is Vegas," the 35-year-old Nguyen says. Will Smith, whose son, Jaden, took lessons from the crew, told them to "ride that wave," and not be discouraged while waiting for the next one. "That’s one thing we kind of live by now," Nguyen says. "It’s going to be OK. There’s another wave that’s going to be coming."

So far, the Jabbawockeez are still cresting on the Strip. A test run at the MGM Grand in May not only sold out the Hollywood Theatre, but pulled in the 20-something demographic that show producers had all but surrendered to nightclubs.

Return bookings sustained the momentum. By the time Burton closed his magic show on Labor Day weekend, it was all but a given that the masked dancers would move into the Monte Carlo. Their "MUS.I.C" (read, "Muse I see") has new staging and has evolved with about 30 percent different content since May.

With 700,000 Facebook fans since May (on top of an existing million), "I don’t think it’s going to stop here just because we’re in Vegas now," Nguyen says of the six-man collective that emerged from California’s "b-boy" scene in 2003.

Two of the founders sit and recall how Kevin Brewer used to give Phil Tayag a ride home from school when they were growing up in Sacramento. "This guy, I’ve known him for a great chunk of his life, since he was 14 years old. Sneakin’ my dad’s car out," Brewer says with a laugh.

Eventually they blended their Northern California b-boy styles with a San Diego crew. When the masks came out for a competition, the Jabbawockeez were born.

"At the time, all the crews were large, and it was kind of hard to focus on who to watch, because everyone was trying to outshine," Tayag explains. "We were like, ‘Let’s just take away our faces so people can’t tell who we are.’ That way they have to look at the picture as a whole."

It also let them get away with "a Clark Kent kind of thing," he says. "We were able to come back into the theater or walk away from the show just like everybody else, and we would hear all these comments: ‘I think they might be from Japan.’ We would be able to get their honest opinion."

Their big break came in the winter of 2008, on the Randy Jackson-produced MTV dance competition, "America’s Best Dance Crew."

The masks were an attention-getter, but Brewer also feels fans latched onto "the charisma of the brotherhood that we have." Some of the crews added ringers for the competition, "but that one key ingredient, those years of bonding and camaraderie, I think that’s what really set us apart on the show."

Once they won the competition, the phone started ringing. The dancers found themselves turning more and more to Fred Nguyen, the nondancing older brother of crew member Jeff "Phi" Nguyen.

"We were dancing kids from the garage who know nothing about business," Brewer says. "We have a unique brand and a unique product, and it doesn’t really fit into the traditional mold of the entertainer."

The older Nguyen’s background in real estate lets him "just see business for what it really is. I think that’s what helped us shine and get to the place that we are now."

With Fred onboard as "the seventh Jabbawockee," the group began to grow its act: Ten minutes to perform in nightclubs expanded to 30 minutes as an opening act for the New Kids On The Block reunion tour.

Two years ago, "we had no production behind us. It was raw dancing," Fred Nguyen says. But the troupe decided, "We’re gonna be artists now. We’re not gonna dance in music videos behind these other artists. We’re gonna be on the front line now. How do we do that, guys?"

It turned out to be fairly organic, a matter of following the Lewis Carroll muse that gave the group its name.

"We still tried to thread in the intricate moves, but also we just wanted to have this distinct vibe when we would get onstage. This very mysterious, very ‘Alice in Wonderland’ thing," Tayag says.

"We just had a totally different take on hip-hop. Knowing people were really catching on to that and that’s what we were genuinely interested in, we just kept going ‘OK, now let’s explore this new world and develop this world. Let’s connect every piece we perform onstage with the one before it.’ "

Wherever this curious trip down the rabbit hole leads, Nguyen promises, "We’re not trying too hard. If it’s not organic or we’re not having fun, we kind of walk away."

Says Brewer, "There’s always wind in our sails, and we’re very grateful for that."

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

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