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‘Jubilee’ revived: Last Las Vegas showgirl show readied for reopening

As Frank Gatson Jr. goes about overhauling “Jubilee,” he knows a lot of people are watching him.

Maybe even the ghost of Donn Arden.

“I truly believe he’s helping me,” the man now in charge of “Jubilee” says of the man who created it. “Not to be corny, but I just feel like he’s guiding me.”

Arden was the hard-drinking, chain-smoking producer who brought the Parisian showgirl to Las Vegas in the 1950s. “Jubilee” was the final signature of a 30-year mark on the Strip, an enduring legacy of a Bob Mackie costume parade and the nightly sinking of the Titanic.

Arden died in 1994, and “Jubilee” has not had a strong guiding hand since. It’s been more of an act of preservation for Arden’s remaining collaborators, trying to maintain a vision of old-Vegas spectacle through decades of changing tastes and generations of dancers — many of the current cast not born when the show opened in the summer of 1981.

Gatson is now the guy vested with “such a huge responsibility not to mess it up.”

“It’s just scary,” he says. “I see opening night in my mind, I see this is the last showgirl show in Las Vegas and that’s some huge responsibility. It’s something important to Las Vegas.”

In keeping with the historic vibe, Gatson likes to stay in Bally’s original hotel tower. The production team has a kind of base camp there, and sometimes Gatson just crashes in that suite instead of returning to his official room.

“If I sleep in my room I don’t have a dream. But if I sleep in this other room I’ll have dreams,” he explains of the Arden inspiration. “I sleep in this bed to get visions sometimes. I’m not spiritual like that and believe in ghosts, but I just think it’s some kind of higher power helping me.”

Gatson has a few other things working in his favor as he readies the new version of “Jubilee” to reopen Monday after being offline for six weeks (a grand reopening is tentatively set for March 29).

For one thing, Gatson seems uniquely qualified for the task. Though he’s mainly known as Beyonce’s choreographer of 15 years, his contributions to videos such as “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” betray his movie-musical influences and what he calls his “hidden agenda.”

“I feel like I’m here to bring the movie musical back, and ‘Jubilee’ is a vehicle to do that,” he says. “Every MTV video I’ve done is like a minimusical.”

The 55-year-old’s first real job in show business was touring with “Up With People,” a peppy youth group whose singers were not put up in hotels, but in the homes of host families.

When “Up With People” played in Reno, Gatson’s host family took the Milwaukee native to see “Hello, Hollywood Hello,” Arden’s companion spectacle to “Jubilee.” That show, along with the musical “Dreamgirls,” became major influences on his life and career.

His first big break was dancing in Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” video. Years later, when he first met Beyonce Knowles as a teen, “I came out of there saying, ‘That’s the second coming of Michael.’ Everybody laughed at me.”

They didn’t laugh as he went on to work with Knowles for 15 years; his credits include the “I Am … Yours” concert video filmed at Wynn Las Vegas in 2009.

“She keeps you busy,” he says. “I haven’t spread my wings yet because I’ve been so busy with such a superstar. And yet that superstar allowed me to be a spoiled brat in the sense that I can just imagine anything.”

When he told a friend the “Jubilee” assignment was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” the friend replied, “You’ve been preparing for this all your life, Frank.”

So he kind of cringes when word gets back to him that people are worried he will turn “Jubilee” into “a hip-hop show.”

“I think I’m the man for the job from one respect, because I like taking the old and bringing it to the new, but still keeping it classic,” he says.

The other reason to take confidence? It’s not like “Jubilee” was fine just the way it was. The old showgirl was showing her age. As one of the rare hotel-owned productions — cast and crew are Bally’s employees, not paid through a third-party producer — it sat dormant while the hotel went through several ownership transitions into the company that’s now the debt-laden Caesars Entertainment.

As a result, the content hasn’t had any significant tinkering since a new opening and a pre-finale ballroom dance sequence in 1997 (Broadway lighting designer Ken Billington did computerize the lighting in 2004).

“Jubilee” played like a passive, TV-watching experience as the cast mimed along to canned tracks full of kitschy “ooh-ahh” chorus vocals that must have sound dated even in 1981.

When Gatson was brought in for the first of what turned out to be more than two dozen viewings, what was his reaction? “It needs to be like shining a shoe, that’s what I kept saying to myself. All the elements are here, everything is great, but it just needs to be brought into this era.”

Gatson says he wants to keep his plans for the music a surprise, but he does drop some clues as he speaks animatedly of the project.

“The music is definitely updated,” he says, but “not updated in a way that doesn’t still hold on to what the musical’s about.” He says not to expect anything as bold as the Jay-Z-produced modern soundtrack for last year’s remake of “The Great Gatsby.”

“I don’t need a hip-hop beat. I just need to really make it danceable. I need to make the mix better in the house.”

What has changed is the some of the unfortunate wardrobe choices for the male dancers, which account for a great deal of the show’s campy snicker factor.

“I always wish I hadn’t worn a light blue tuxedo to my prom. I wish I had worn a black dinner jacket or just a nice plain tuxedo,” Gatson says. “I look at this show when it was built, the fashions that the men had on worked. But they forgot the year 2000 was going to come. Maybe they didn’t even realize the show was going to last that long.

“But then,” he adds, “what really contradicts that was that the women’s costumes have really transcended time.

“I’m even trying to bring back some stuff that was taken out of the show,” he says. Gatson explored backstage and “discovered a whole new room of stuff. It’s great to see they’re still in mint condition.”

If there’s any ties between “Jubilee” and working with the likes of Beyonce and Rihanna, it’s that “in some way, those girls are showgirls. They don’t wear the feathers and big boas, but they are girls who get onstage and know how to stand like a woman.”

It’s his job to make these showgirls, “more beautiful. Scrumptious, delicious, wonderful.” And it’s their job to bring the energy, break that invisible wall and feel the passion he feels for this show. “You can’t mark (a dancer’s term for just hitting the mark), you gotta give,” he tells them.

He doesn’t see why “Jubilee” can’t be more fun than going to a club, where “you pay all that money and buy all that liquor and you’re still not getting what ‘Jubilee’ can give you. I want it to be like a party. I want people to walk out feeling really good.

“Once again, that’s why this is so difficult to me,” he says later. “I am the last Mohican of the showgirl. … That’s deep to me. That’s profound.”

The cast must think “This man is crazy,” he admits. “I can see it in their eyes. But it’s a good crazy.”

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

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