September 21, 2007 - 9:00 pm
This is the new old Vegas.
Sure, the performers in "V — The Ultimate Variety Show" are still young pups compared to active seniors such as Don Rickles and Tony Bennett. But neither of them juggles, twirls a bolo to knock a flower out of somebody’s mouth or supports the weight of another guy on his head.
Many of the "front of curtain" acts in "V" have been doing that stuff for ages. The hand-balancing team of Iouri Safronov and Nikolai Meinkov opened "Mystere," the show that ushered in a new era for Vegas back in — can you believe it? — 1993. But if age makes it harder to do their slow-motion athletics, you don’t notice it yet.
And a touch of grey kind of suits an Argentine gaucho anyway. When Hugo Latorre says for maybe the 8,000th time on a Vegas stage, "I’m not gay, but my boyfriend is," his winking smile has a little extra comic resonance.
Really it’s the show’s style, its very format, that takes you back to another era on the Strip. David Saxe’s mom was a showgirl and his sister was "Melinda — The First Lady of Magic." Saxe was overseeing Melinda’s show when she decided to get married and retire. Instead of closing shop, he replaced the Venetian show with "V," a whole revue of the acts that once spelled the big production numbers in Vegas floor shows.
Saxe remembers his wife worried they would lose their house if he signed the contract.
Five years later, "V" is still squarely at the top of the middle; no threat to Cirque du Soleil, but delivering more entertainment per dollar than many challengers in its price range. And after magician Steve Wyrick opened a new theater just down the hall at the Miracle Mile Shops, Saxe started sprucing up his venue, which still sports the poorly themed vestiges of its days as a Spanish nightclub.
Much of that now is camouflaged with a game-showy new set by "American Idol" stage designer Andy Walmsley. Audience sightlines and comfort have been improved by theater seats rescued from Rita Rudner’s bygone comedy room at New York-New York.
A few moments help the show break free of its limited staging. Doug Deforrest hovers on an overhead drum wall to offer a little "Stomp" Lite, and the Aerial Expressions duo of Chris Santisicuan and Jonathan Harms twirls above the first few rows, sometimes held aloft only by a hand clasp.
Audiences are less likely to remember the acrobatics than the comic connections made by the gauchos or juggling host Wally Eastwood. Time also has been on Eastwood’s side, allowing him to grow from one of the Strip’s most dependable variety acts into a guy who can unify a whole show with his comic personality.
His running commentary acknowledges the silliness of juggling without detracting from the skill. "If you don’t clap, don’t worry, ’cause I still gotta do it." Or, "You guys should get out more. And take me with you."
"V" launched with an open format that frequently rotated acts in and out of the lineup. Now it’s more stable, with most of the acts taking just one night off each week. The lineup includes magician Jason Byrne and Russ Merlin, whose simple crowd pleaser of a set consists of outfitting four guys from the audience with embarrassing masks.
It’s not hand-balancing, and neither is show-closer Joe Trammel, perhaps the most divisive star in the roster. Having seen Trammel so many times over the years, I think I’ve finally solved the problem. It takes about half his act for people to figure out that what he does — wielding comic props and fast-changing costumes to snippets of music — is all he does.
Once you realize, "Yes folks, this is it," you can only give in to the manic energy of the pop-culture mash-up that goes from "Jaws" to "Titanic" to Richard Simmons to the Village People in just about that order.
If "V" still has a low recognition factor among locals, that’s because it’s low to the ground. The marketing strategy offers generous commissions to the ticket agents out in the field who put the bodies in the seats.
The cast backs it up by delivering the customer satisfaction, making sure the buyers aren’t back in the ticket agent’s face the next morning. Where else in this hip, pricey new Vegas are you going to see the gauchos, the hoop gal and the crazy prop comic dancing in his underwear all in one show?MIKE WEATHERFORDMORE COLUMNS
REVIEW what: "V — The Ultimate Variety Show" when: 7:30 and 9 p.m. daily where: V Theater at the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, 3663 Las Vegas Blvd. South tickets: $64-$74 (932-1818) rating: B