insightful in-depth reviews

17, Aug 2015

Las Vegas imports Broadway

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas is the slogan used by the famed Nevada city. It implies sin and secrecy, and it brings ever-increasing numbers of visitors. This report will violate the town slogan and tell what actually happens in Vegas. To East Coast Americans, some of it is surprising.

Gambling is the big draw, of course, followed by the hotels and restaurants. What’s an eyeopener, however, is the extent to which theater has become important in Vegas. There are now more commercial shows on the Vegas Strip than there are in New York City, including Broadway and off Broadway. While I was there, 85 shows were running in Vegas, not counting lounge acts and comedy clubs. In comparison, the Sunday New York Times that week advertised only 63 current Manhattan shows.

The annual number of tourists coming to Las Vegas has increased from 5 million in the Rat Pack era of the 1960s, to 12 million in 1980, then to 36 million in 2000. The resident population has increased apace, from 127,000 in 1960 to 460,000 in 1980, to 1,400,000 in 2000. (The Strip itself is outside the city limits. Its area is unincorporated, which means it has no mayor or council and is administered by the county, although all mail is postmarked “Las Vegas.” Most visitors never even get into the city itself. Therefore we use county figures.)

The estimated population of the county is almost two million. This puts metropolitan Las Vegas behind just New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston on the list of most-populous American cities. Northeasterners may not be aware that Vegas is the fastest-growing place in the country, because not enough of them have seen it in person. Visitors from the Atlantic seaboard are under-represented in Las Vegas. Of 38 million visitors to Vegas last year, only 10 percent were from the Northeast United States.

Some of the stage productions in Vegas are long-running New York shows, such as Mamma Mia, Avenue Q, Hairspray, Spamalot and Blue Man Group. These are not crate-and-barrel reductions. The Vegas versions often are grander than in New York, although they frequently are trimmed to an intermissionless 90 minutes. Other Vegas acts are stars who have played limited engagements on Broadway, such as Penn & Teller, David Copperfield and Jerry Seinfeld.

When I first visited Las Vegas in the early 1960s, only nine casinos were on Las Vegas Boulevard, known as The Strip, running from the airport to the city. The Desert Inn, Dunes, Sands, Sahara, Stardust, Flamingo, Thunderbird, Tropicana and Riviera were low-rise buildings nestled among sand dunes and parched desert. (That’s when the Las Vegas population was only 127,000.) Now the Strip is lined with more than 30 towering hotels. The main part of the Strip is less than four miles long, but it takes an hour for buses to cover that congested distance.

I’ve driven on the downtown streets of New York, Los Angles, London, Paris and Rome, and none of them are as snarled as the Las Vegas Strip. Nor is Atlantic City, even though it has most of its casinos lined up on one street, like Vegas. To play in the big leagues, Vegas must improve its transportation.

A monorail runs from the MGM Grand, which is near the airport, to the Sahara, the Strip hotel that’s closest to downtown. It takes only 16 minutes to cover the distance in comfortable, modern cars. Locals criticize the monorail for not having enough stops. What they mean is that the monorail doesn’t service the areas where people live but, instead, services the hotel-casinos. Fares on the monorail are the same as on city buses, and the monorail is by far the better way of getting around.

You have a hike to get from the lobby of a hotel to its monorail station, but that’s Vegas for you. Just to walk from your room to your hotel’s theaters and restaurants, you must transverse huge gaming rooms and long corridors lined with shops; a shlep that’s equal to walking several blocks in Manhattan.

Fourteen of America’s fifteen largest hotels are here. The MGM Grand is the world’s biggest hotel, and the Luxor has the world’s largest lobby. These humongous hotel-casino-resorts offer great service and accommodations.

At the MGM Grand, a uniformed doorman smiles a greeting, then you meet a maitre d’ of the lobby who asks your destination and points you towards the check-in desk, or the casino, or whatever. As you near the front desk another staffer greets you and escorts you to an available clerk.

At the Paris, where we also spent some time, the ambiance is classic French, and the approach is more understated. Whatever the style of the individual hostelry, the amenities are first class. In this city, hospitality is at the highest level.

Each of the major hotels houses a panoply of restaurants. (The Venetian boasts 19, and New York New York has 24.) Many of America’s leading chefs have flagship eateries here. Some, like Wolfgang Puck, have opened several: Spago and Chinois, replicating his original Los Angeles properties, plus Postrio and the Puck Bar & Grille.

Gone are the cheap buffets that used to be a Las Vegas draw. Far uptown, I found a Subway that serves an egg-sandwich breakfast for $2.95. But along the main part of the Strip, there are no places like that, and the hotel breakfast buffets average about $15. Dinner buffets are around $25. Instead of competing on the basis of price, each rivals the next in quality and variety of selections.

Getting back to the drama scene, New York habitues are accustomed to the fact that two companies own and manage most of the houses. In Vegas, the same is true. Harrahs also owns Caesars Palace, Ballys, Flamingo, Hilton, Paris and Rio, and MGM Mirage owns MGM Grand, Mirage, Bellagio, Luxor, Treasure Island, Mandalay Bay, New York New York, Monte Carlo, Circus Circus, Boardwalk and Excalibur.

But there’s a difference. In Manhattan, Jujamcyn and Shubert rent their houses to dozens of independent producers, whereas in Las Vegas the hotels control their own shows (sometimes in partnership with a producing outfit like Cirque du Soleil.) This makes things easy for reviewers who need to contact only two or three organizations. But it also puts a great deal of responsibility in very few hands.

You’ll find no intimate theaters here. All are large and modern. Many of them have table seating and waiters take orders for drinks. Others have chairs like cinema multiplexes, with cup holders, and patrons carry in drinks that they purchase in the lobby.

The 1950-seat KA Theater at the MGM Grand has the audience face an apparently bottomless void filled with smoke. Above and around that space, the artists make their entrances without ever treading the boards of a conventional stage. Instead, they fly through the air, or perform on large moving platforms.

Most Las Vegas shows are in one act. The goal apparently is to not keep people away from the gaming rooms for too long. Ticket prices are even higher than New York, with KA and other Cirque du Soleil productions having a $150 top. But Penn & Teller are a bargain at $82.50.

Las Vegas is curiously prudish when it comes to theater admissions. No one under age 18 is allowed to see the occasional bare breasts in Jubilee nor hear the jokes in Second City. Jubilee is a classy spectacle which is neither lewd nor erotic. A more sensible restriction of children is that which keeps them away from gambling. Casinos ban anyone under 18 from entering their premises unless the child is walking through with a restaurant reservation or is attending a wedding in one of their chapels.

Some productions are impressionists, including a Rat Pack tribute and Barbra and Frank: The Concert That Never Was. Mostly away from the major hotels are strip shows. And then there are bars that seem to combine exhibitionism with impressionism, such as a battle between Britney and Christina. The poster shows Spears and Aguilera look-alikes practically naked.

In the phone book, under Entertainment, are page after page of women (and some men and transsexuals) who advertise that they will come to your hotel room “within 20 minutes” and dance in the nude, “on approval, no obligation,” with fees starting at $69. Vans drive up and down the Strip with advertising panels that say the same thing. A security guard told me that whatever else a man wants can be arranged, “between the customer and the girl.” Las Vegas once was called Sin City. Now it says that what you do “stays in Vegas.” The game is the same.

To ignore that side of Vegas would be bad reporting. But it is only one part of the culture. The impressions I have after five days and nights in Las Vegas are gauzy recollections of grand hotels, glitzy shows and gourmet restaurants.

The best meal was at Postrio, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in the Venetian. From foie gras to Kansas City steak, from European to American, Postrio serves classy renditions of international favorites. The steak was the tenderest I’ve ever eaten, and the rare Hawaiian Yellowfish Tuna and Peking Roast Duck were delicious and artistically presented.

Other highlights of our visit included a ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower, the half-sized replica at the Paris Hotel Casino. In a rare instance of civic modesty, the tower was downsized so it wouldn’t look out of place on the Strip. Alongside it is a copy of the Arc de Triomph. The highest tower in Vegas is the 1150-foot Stratosphere, and we ascended to its top for the view. A roller-coaster ride around the edge of the top of the Stratosphere is scary, and so is the Big Shot, which drops you vertically from the peak of the building.

Another diversion for children is the indoor amusement park at Circus Circus, and there’s another roller coaster inside New York New York. One of the most romantic moments came on a half-hour gondola ride along the canals of the Venetian Hotel Casino. Our gondolier was charming and sang beautifully — surpassing the gondoliers of Venice, Italy, whose union no longer permits them to sing at all.

Almost every hotel is theatrical in the word’s larger sense, designed to place you in an exotic place and time, from Rome to Egypt to Mandalay. Inside the Paris, every shop has a French name and operators answer the phones with “bon jour.” In addition to the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, the Paris has a sidewalk cafe with a wonderful casual ambience.

The Excalibur is a casino whose theme is medieval England. It puts on a Tournament of Kings, where you join the monarchs of various continental nations, coming to visit King Arthur’s round table. They sing and compete in jousting contests as we in the audience tear apart roast Cornish hen and eat it with our fingers. You see spears and swords, but you get no knives or forks.

Other Vegas attractions include dancing water fountains at the Bellagio, an exploding volcano at the Mirage, Roman gods amidst fire and smoke at Caesars Palace and a Brazilian masquerade parade at the Rio. In a rare display of high culture, the Venetian houses the Hermitage collection of Russian decorative art and costumes. The Venetian, incidentally, is not affiliated with any other Vegas casino. It is the successor to the old Sands, and its only other properties are in the People’s Republic of China.

The nationality of Las Vegas visitors is reported as 87 percent from the USA and 13 percent foreign but it appears that the percentage of foreign visitors is much higher than that, with many Asians.

It appears as if the building crane is the area’s official bird. More hotels are being built, bringing more restaurants and more shows. And there is plenty of land for expansion. One area of untapped potential growth is bringing more guests from the Eastern United States. Since only 10 percent of all Vegas visitors come from there, that seems like a lot of missed opportunities — for both sides.