Manilow in concert

I haven’t done any concert/show reviews here yet, and I can’t think of any good reason. Well, actually I can: when I go to a show, I usually want to just enjoy, and not have to worry about analyzing it. The casino carpet thing has already ruined casinos for me. Every time I set foot in a casino (which, given my job, is pretty often), I’ve got to pay attention to what’s under foot. For example, last Tuesday I was hurrying to a speaking engagement at the MGM Grand, and I noticed that hey, they’ve put new carpet in. After making a mental note to return with a camera to document the change, I continued on my way. It’s just another example of the lengths to which I will go to please the carpet-craving Internet hordes. If you have any doubt that they are out there, I’ll send you my search engine referral stats.

In any event, last night my wife and I were invited to a performance of Barry Manilow’s “Music and Passion” show at the Las Vegas Hilton. To be completely candid, it’s probably not my first choice for a night’s entertainment. I missed out on the original Barry-mania of the 1970s, so a lot of the appeal is lost on me. Still, I’ve always liked “Copacabana,” particularly since I heard that parody of it, “Star Wars Cantina.” So I’m coming at the show not from the perspective of a longtime fan fulfilling a lifelong dream, but as a pleasantly curious listener looking to have a good time and enjoy a slice of Vegasana. You know, forty years from now I’d like nothing more than to sit down and tell all those youngsters about how I was around in the glory days of Vegas, when Barry Manilow and Celine Dion were the big headliners. Sounds funny, but there was a time when Liberace and Frank Sinatra were something entirely novel. Wayne Newton, on the other hand, has been part of Vegas since 700 A.D., when the Southern Paiutes first migrated in.

We got a hint of the fun to come when, on our way in, an usher gave us glow sticks–you know, the kind that you might have taken trick-or-treating. “Is this a rave?” I wondered aloud. The fact that most of the audience was distinctly out of the usual rave demographic was all the answer I needed. “They’re for ‘Copacabna,'” the usher said, and smiled knowingly.

The Hilton theater has been redone–the stage is framed by a stylized “M” and there’s a “Cobacabana Bar.” But it’s still the same place where Elvis reigned. Just looking at the stage, I imagined sitting in there 30 years ago, hearing the majestic strains of “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” as a man in a sequined jumpsuit came onstage. I then imagined sitting through “Starlight Express,” and quickly suppressed that thought.

The show started with a house-music compilation of some of Barry’s greatest hits, with the visuals–old albums, classic concert photos–whizzing by. The curtain rose, the smoke machines kicked, in, and Barry came out. The place went absolutely nuts, and everyone stood up, many of them shaking their glow sticks. Barry and his band, augmented by four dancers/backup singers, led off with “It’s a Miracle,” which the crowd certainly appreciated.

I’m not going to recount every song here, just the highlights. After a little banter from the audience, Barry introduced a set of songs from the Big Band era, which went over huge. “Moonlight Serenade” was probably the high spot there.

Here’s something that really impressed me. This was just Barry’s second show back from hip surgery (he said he didn’t have hip replacement, but didn’t specify what he’d had done), and he was noticeably hindered–not limping, but moving gingerly. I can hardly convey my respect and admiration for someone who can work through that kind of pain for a 90-minute show and communicate nothing but enthusiasm and energy to the audience. It’s not on the level of the hiker who amputated his own arm and then walked to safety, but it’s definitely impressive.

After that, it was onto the Fifties, with some American Bandstand material and a few of that decade’s better songs. By this point, I’m liking the show for what it is: a well-produced, high-energy presentation of classic songs for a casino audience. Suni and I, despite being the youngest people there by about 20 years (besides the 6-year-old two rows in front of us who had his fingers in his ears for the opener but seemed to take a liking to the show), were having a good time.

When we get to the Sixties, things take a turn for the positively bizarre. For me, of course, that means the show goes from being merely pleasant to being fantastically entertaining.

I hesitate to even try to describe what I saw. For some reason, I’m thinking of the epigram to Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” taken from Dante’s Inferno. Thanks to the Internet, instead of vaguely remembering the gist of it, I can give you a full translation:

“If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy.”

All of this has nothing to do with anything–I’m just saying this is what’s going through my mind as I try to describe the next few minutes.

It starts when the curtain comes down on the main stage, and Barry shuffles off, not to Buffalo, but to a sidestage decorated with beads, a lava lamp, and shag rug, a small table, and a chair. I’ll call it the Lava Lounge. Barry puts on a pink/purple nehru jacket and immediately, I think, “I’ve got to hit the thrift shops tomorrow and find one of those.” He then slides into some gentle banter about the 1960s being a decade of flower children and all that, before noticing something on the table.
“It’s a cigarette,” he says. “Oh,” he clarifies, “it’s one of those cigarettes.” He then places it to his lips and, ostensibly, tokes up. And I don’t mean he’s leaving something for the dealers.

You read that right. As part of a Las Vegas stage show, Barry Manilow simulated lighting up a spliff. And he did inhale, because in the middle of his next sentence, he just trailed off and sat their, wordless, with a smile on his face, for about 10 seconds.

What a better way to celebrate the defeat of Nevada’s proposition 7, which would have legalized marajuana use in the Silver State. And what better anti-drug message–way more effective than Scared Straight. I would just show this to kids to get them to avoid drugs. I mean, it’s hard for other kids to use peer pressure and tell you that all the cool people smoke pot, when you’ve got Barry Manilow doing it onstage.

From there, Barry recovered his short-term memory and went into a fine rendition of “Yesterday” (is there anyone who hasn’t covered that song?). The rest of the Sixties stuff was fun. Another fun part of the show–the dancers change costumes with each decade, so in the 1940s they’re bobby-soxers, in the 1950s they look like rockabilly chicks (well, the one male dancer doesn’t), and so on. It really added to the visual appeal of the show.

But the roof really came off the place with the closing numbers. I really liked the way they did “Mandy.” It started with concert footage of 1975 Barry doing the song on TV, and for the second verse segued into 2006 Barry doing it live. I’m normally not a fan of seeing videos at concerts, but this was really neat. The glow sticks really came out for that one. And by the time the band hit “Copacabana,” the place exploded. Just about everyone was dancing in the aisles, and it was obvious that it was truly “a good time had by all.” One woman in the front was so excited that she siezed two glow sticks and looked a little like someone trying to guide an airplane onto a runway while dodging killer bees. Good times.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed the show. It would have been easy to be all ironic and make jokes about the geriatric crowd and performer, but I have a feeling that, 20 years from now, when I’m rocking out to Rob Zombie in the Bellagio (keep in mind, it’ll be considered a piece of “classic Vegas” by then), I won’t appreciate some youngster getting snide with me. The band was great, and the show’s high production value helped ensure it was visually immersive as well. All in all, it was a good, fun show, even for someone who isn’t that familiar with the Manilow songbook. And that odd nehru jacket/doobie smoking episode gives the show that surreal Vegas touch.

The show is highly recommended for A) Barry Manilow fans) and B) a younger audience who wants to see a genuine piece of Vegas. If nothing else, you’ll love watching a room full of people your parents’ age waving glow sticks.

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