A man (or woman) all alone on a stage, working with no safety net beyond talent, charisma and the good will generated by the effort.

Is it coincidence that not one, but three great shows fit that description in 2009? To paraphrase "A Bronx Tale," the working-man entertainer was the real hero.

If not completely foreseeable in a year that began with only two new spectaculars ("The Lion King" and "Peepshow") on the horizon, it made sense that stand-up comedians weren’t the only stars to keep it lean and mean in this austere and hardscrabble year, where everything was down except ticket prices.

It was tough to decide if Chazz Palminteri’s carefully sculpted "Tale" or Garth Brooks’ ragged, off-the-cuff snake charming should hold the No. 1 spot. After a lot of coin-flipping, I decided on age before beauty.

1. "A BRONX TALE" — This town has seen everything in entertainment. Everything but the 57-year-old Palminteri stepping back into his own youth during The Venetian stop, playing multiple characters in the autobiographical wise-guy saga that launched his career 20 years ago.

2. GARTH BROOKS — Future shows in Brooks’ planned five-year run at Wynn Las Vegas might not be as all over the place or as endearing in their sloppiness. One thing not likely to change is Brooks pulling a real personality from the slickly packaged commodity he made of country music.

3. "THE LION KING" — Coming to Mandalay Bay 12 years down the road made Julie Taymor’s abstract, stylized take on Disney even more impressive for holding its own amid Cirque du Soleil.

4. "SGT. PEPPER LIVE" — A massive musical ensemble fronted by Cheap Trick (with guest singers such as Joan Osborne) at the Las Vegas Hilton celebrated not just the Beatles, but the vitality of classic music made without computers.

5. "KA" — Follow my annual cheat of "insert your own Cirque favorite here." But seeing the most underappreciated title again this year at MGM Grand was a reminder of the sky’s-the-limit promise Las Vegas entertainment once held. By contrast, an early glimpse of "Viva Elvis" looks like Cirque on a diet.

6. LILY TOMLIN — The 70-year-old surprised us with her continued physical agility as she delivered her trademark blend of stand-up comedy and theatrical monologue during a visit to MGM Grand.

7. BEYONCÉ — Video prompters killed the illusion of intimacy, and you could argue the 28-year-old pop star doesn’t yet need to hunker down with a string quartet. What can’t be doubted is a born performer’s genuine charisma and the summer’s pricey Wynn Las Vegas debut being the launch of a long career on the Strip.

8. SANTANA — In a year that forced Las Vegas to keep it a bit more real, you just had to smile at a 62-year-old hippie with an extended engagement at the Hard Rock Hotel throwing down Latin rhythm guitar jams and calling for the legalization of marijuana — with the tax revenue earmarked for schools, of course.

9. TERRY FATOR — By the time Garth flew in to smother us in nice-guy charm, ticket-buyers already were enthralled with the happy-to-be-here ventriloquist who won "America’s Got Talent" and Danny Gans’ theater at The Mirage.

10. DANNY GANS — The versatile impressionist had just 12 weeks on his new stage at Wynn Las Vegas before his May 1 death at age 52. But the year should not pass without another nod to all his shows, and all the audiences he mesmerized, since his Las Vegas debut as a relative unknown in 1996.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at or 702-383-0288.

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