The Return of Joey Arias 

Photo by Travis Michael Holder

Catalina Jazz Club

I have always been a worshipful admirer of some of our time’s greatest female vocalists, especially when performing in clubs and intimate spaces. Some of my most memorable experiences in a darkened theatre or night spot have been watching and listening to the best, from Carmen McRae to Morgana King, from Ella Fitzgerald to Laura Nyro, from Rosemary Clooney to Alanis Morissette, from Judy Garland to Amy Winehouse, from Blossom Dearie to Dusty Springfield, from Joni Mitchell to Sylvester, from Little Esther Phillips to Janis Joplin, from Bette to Babs.

I remember as an underage kid being snuck into the side door of the Gate of Horn in Chicago to sit on a wooden box just offstage right, where I had a perfect side view of Nina Simone seated at her piano. I watched in awe as her impossibly long and spindly fingers danced over the keys, hard-earned sweat poring off her brow only a few feet in front of me as I almost reverently held my breath.

That was a similar view to what I had last night watching iconic New York performance artist Joey Arias sweep onto the stage of the Catalina Jazz Club—which is coincidentally directly across from our apartment, making both the commute and our particular level of being wasted far more convenient.

As with those one-of-a-kind vocalists mentioned above, there is something unearthly about Joey, with a voice and delivery that I realized last night falls somewhere smack-dab between the raspy snarl of Frances Faye and the sweet lyricism of Anita O’Day, with just a touch of Yma Sumak’s vocal calisthenics thrown in to make to even more amazing to behold.

Waiting in line for entrance, I heard someone behind me say, “I thought this was a jazz club, not a place that booked drag shows.” Oh, how I wanted to comment. Although Joey wears shockingly revealing dresses and signature Vampira makeup onstage, his show and talent have nothing to do with his appearance.

And yes, before I go any farther, I checked with Joey directly to see which pronouns he prefers these days, as we’ve been friends and I’ve written about his work for almost 20 years, long before the current demands for “wokeness.” We immediately hit it off when I interviewing him in Vegas in 2004 for Gorgeous Magazine when he starred, scantily clad in Theirry Muglar leather dominatrix finery, as the “Mistress of Seduction” in Cirque du Soleil’s raucously inappropriate Zumanity at New York-New York.

So… in 2022, how should I refer to Joey, I asked? “However you feel,” he texted. “I always say just call me Joey. All these pronouns are so Last Century. HAHAHAHAHAA!”

Since I’ve hung out with Joey without the accoutrements which have articulated his stage image over the years, I think I’ll continue to just do what just came natur’lly for the last two decades.

The major thing that kept me from butting in and answering the gentleman in line was that I knew it wouldn’t take long into Joey’s set for the guy to realize he was not going to get a drag show. There’s nothing affected or campy or “Rose’s Turn” about the stage persona of Joey Arias; it’s just him. Her. Them. Joey. And there’s no more perfect place for Joey to share his wildly eclectic and unique gifts than in a jazz club, especially one as atmospheric and smart as Catalina.

In this new touring show, aptly dubbed The Return of Joey Arias, it’s a lot more about jazz than about Priscilla Presley hair and mylar eyelashes—and no one does it better, especially when accompanied by two stellar musicians who can riff with the best.

In his first excursion to the west coast, noisily innovative New York avant-garde electric guitarist Brandon Seabrook, once voted Best Guitarist in New York City by Village Voice, plays like a maniac—and I mean that in a good way.

Pianist Eliot Douglass has been collaborating with Joey since those early days when both were working in Zumanity and through the years, they have come to fit together like a well-oiled machine. Joey and Douglass jamming together is particularly arresting performing one the pianist’s own original compositions, “Ooooo, What a Feeling,” one of the most prominent highlights of their set. Together Joey, Douglass, and Seabrook seamlessly conjure pure collaborative magic.

Then there’s the rest of the numbers chosen here. After my initial introduction to the “Mistress of Seduction” in Zumanity, where his old alter ego Mitzi La Mouche and most of his musical material was lifted from his club act, his next appearance was touring the globe in his solo off-Broadway hit Arias with a Twist, which featured tunes by Led Zeppelin; Propellerheads; The Beatles; Eric Carmen; and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

Joey next hit the road transforming into Elenora Fagan herself, his Strange Fruit tour bringing an entire evening offering his renditions of the haunting classics made famous by Billie Holiday, with an onstage persona complete with Lady Day's legendary slicked hair and ever-present gardenia.

This new show, for me, is the most personal of any of these highly acclaimed productions. Beginning with a brassy, stoned-out rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” where the trio easily convinced us it was all in their brains and lately things don’t seem the same, and after a (possibly) purposely incoherent salutatory greeting to the audience, Joey and his crew launched directly into the standard “All of Me,” a version quickly rivaling Ruth Etting's 1931 original and both popular covers by Sinatra and Holiday.

Joey kept telling us what fun he was having up there, something that was infectious for everyone in the room. And when he felt comfortable enough to lose his overskirt to expose most of his rather distracting hourglass figure and random peeks at nipple rings, the audience went suitably nuts.

In a performance that went by far too fast, Arias and his super-talented cohorts led us through such diverse material as the Fab Four’s “It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night” and jazz standards “Them There Eyes” and “Lover Come Back to Me”—something I hope Joey will do really soon—before bringing tears and rapt silence as he breathlessly knocked what was left of our resolve out onto McCadden Place with his quietly shattering version of Holiday’s infamous career-crushing “Strange Fruit.”

From the Catalina stage Thursday night, Joey was clearly having a wonderful time and mentioned rather wistfully that he hoped to come back to LA soon. “Do you want me to come back?” he asked his adoring audience with a revealing touch of almost childlike insecurity, a question that was immediately met with much hooting and thunderous applause.

When that happens, be quick. The sophisticated yet intimate Catalina Jazz Club is the perfect place for this otherworldly and astonishingly talented diva to play, but it’s also a place that, like last night, is easy to sell out.

While we wait with bated breath for The Return of the Return of Joey Arias, here are only some of the worldclass artists currently scheduled to appear at Catalina in the near future, of lot of whom are performing thanks to promoter extraordinaire Christopher Isaacson, the man we have to thank bigtime for bringing Joey to Palm Springs and here to LA this time ‘round, albeit far too briefly:

Drummer Fred Dinkins (Oct. 26); the Bob James Trio (Oct. 28 - 30); Tony Danza (Nov. 1 - 5); Flamenco guitarist Jose Antonio Rodriguez and his trio direct from Spain (Nov. 8); Linda Purl’s In the Mood tour (Nov. 20); and an incredible sleighride full of holiday-themed cheer throughout December, including appearances by David Benoit and Jane Monheit. Catalina is also hosting two recurring shows on Sundays: Eureka’s Big Girl Brunch and Bingo starring We’re Here and Drag Race phenom Eureka O’Hara (Oct. 23, Nov. 20, and Dec. 18) and Sunday School: The Ultimate Live Music Social with Jason Joseph and the Spectacular (Nov. 13, Dec. 11, and Jan. 15).

And if anyone might be curious to read my original interview with Joey from 2004, go to FEATURES & INTERVIEWS elsewhere on this website and scroll to the very bottom.

For information on upcoming events at Catalina Jazz Club, 6725 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, call 323.466.2210 or log on to

For information on upcoming events presented at Catalina and elsewhere by Chris Isaacson, keep an eye on


Wide Eyed in Wonder—Escapades and Serenades Along Love’s Trail of Longing  

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

A little bit of Brecht, a little bit of Brel, and a whole lot of Abatemarco: that’s the formula that has so gloriously and unexpectedly energized the conspicuously bare stage of the Odyssey over the last three Saturday nights.

There’s never been a shadow of a doubt that LA-based theatrical treasure and prolific actor/director/playwright Tony Abatemarco is capable of doing just about anything he puts his mind to but… cabaret artist?

Who knew?

It seems the guy has harbored a down-deep desire to try out his cords as a singer for a long time and finally—gratefully for us—the introspective isolation of our worldwide pandemic nightmare gave the über-talented fellow time to dig inward as he hopped off the merry-go-round just long enough to ruminate on the possibility of taking his dream to fruition.

Appearing as part of the Music at the Odyssey series and accompanied on the bass and piano by the series’ go-getting producer John Snow, Abatemarco’s personal Mamma Rose debut proved to be a remarkable, spirit-lifting, charmingly accessible event.

Abatemarco instantly puts those gathered at ease, delivering a palpable communal sense of kinship with his audience that for me conjured the long-lost feeling of watching some of the musical theatre’s most celebrated entertainers hanging out around the Steinway at one of those legendary Sunday afternoon salons hosted by Leonard Bernstein at his home on East 79th.

Although never quite losing a sly but omnipresent undercurrent of about-to-pop showmanship reminiscent of the late-great Peter Allen, the physically unassuming Abatemarco, casually decked out in his familiar Popeye Doyle pork pie hat and untucked mismatched plaid and paisley ensemble, quickly made me think of works by Brecht and Weill, notably imagining him playing Macheath in The Threepenny Opera or Bill Cracker in Happy End, not to mention thinking what a perfect choice he’d be to interpret “Jackie” or “The Statue” from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well…

Still, the song cycle he’s chosen to present in his first cabaret show, aptly titled Wide Eyed in Wonder—Escapades and Serenades Along Love’s Trail of Longing, in general features more contemporary material (at least contemporary to me, but that’s another issue). Although he does include unique interpretations of standards by everyone from Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, even Les Paul and Mary Ford, not to mention Richard Rodgers and his two brilliant collaborators Oscar and Lorenz, the most indelible moments came when honoring the work of Our Queen Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Lennon and McCartney, and paying homage to his personal sensibility-sparking lost heroes Phoebe Snow, Minnie Riperton, and Roberta Flack (by way of the often forgotten Lori Lieberman).

What knocked me out the most was Abatemarco’s distinctive and highly uncommon phrasing, solidifying that the best interpreters of song are almost always gifted actors. I heard familiar lyrics in a whole new light and remembered how the truly great songs for me are all gifted by world-class lyrics that, in the proper hands, can be appreciated as much as poetry as anything else. See, I grew up almost constantly employed in Rodgers and Hammersteinland and as a result, I usually run from productions of their musicals as quickly as my little feeties can carry me. What Abatemarco found in the sappy “It Might As Well Be Spring,” for instance, gave me a little hint of shame I have become so judgmental in my golden years of the standards by Rodgers and his two misters H.

With arrestingly jazzy and daringly untraditional arrangements fashioned by that new dynamic duo Abatemarco and Snow of such classics as the Stein/Comden and Green’s “Make Someone Happy” or Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love,” the pair’s 75-minute intermissionless set took no prisoners. Traditionalists need not apply.

Yet for me, the real wonder of it all began early on as Abatemarco opened with the most sensational version of Jon Mitchell’s popular “All I Want” from her 1971 album Blue that I’ve ever heard—at least since she debuted it herself onstage at the Troubadour, where I was employed as Talent Coordinator during that glorious Golden Age of music and booked her there for her first professional appearance over a half-century ago.

Actually, the whole evening brought back some buried memories and made me flash back to being brought to the equally barebones backroom of McCabe’s Guitar Store in Santa Monica a few months before Joni’s historic Troub debut by a young go-getter named David Geffen and my friend Laura Nyro to see a young newbie from Canada named Robert Joan Anderson pour her heart out into her music.

Wide Eyed in Wonder instantly made me reminisce about our youthful days when Joni would barrel into my office at the Troub in a “state” as she looked for her always-erring ex-beau David Blue, whose dubious inspiration may be the reason that particular album is regarded as a culmination of her earliest message to the masses, her disheartened view of the world juxtaposed with a fervent belief in the redemptive power of romantic love.

I can’t think of a better way to describe how Wide Eyed in Wonder—Escapades and Serenades along Love’s Trail of Longing moved me as I walked into the Odyssey's parking lot with my arm tightly around the love of my life, that persistent insistence that whatever life has to offer along the way, all the courageous, unstoppably creative Mr. Abatemarco really, really wants to do is to bring out the best in himself—and in us too. “Applause, applause,” and all that. Clearly for Tony Abatemarco and John Snow, “life is our cause.”

The run of their magical event is now past, but don’t despair: the passion to continue on this new leg of its creator’s journey through life and love while celebrating the healing power of music is clearly more than ready for its next excursion.


Photo by Travis Michael Holder

I’ve known and loved Linda Purl for over four decades and, although I saw her play Daisy Gamble in On a Clear Day...  with the San Bernardino CLO in the early 80s when I was still nurturing my dinner theatre in Lake Arrowhead, I am embarrassed to say I’ve never seen her perform her cabaret side in person—until now.

Geebus, what I’ve missed.

Happily, Linda came to our ‘hood for just one amazing performance at the Catalina Jazz Club in a magical show entitled Linda Purl and Her Big Band Romance  before heading to San Diego to repeat her triumph at Martini’s Above Fourth and, if the rest of the world is lucky enough, hopefully she'll continue to bring this lovely show on tour far and wide.

With keyboardist and musical director Christopher Barron leading a 16-piece ensemble so cramped on the Catalina’s small stage that six members in the horn section had to be placed in front of the stage directly facing patrons finishing their Cajun catfish entrees, the ageless Linda—who obviously has a portrait of herself in an attic closet somewhere really going to hell—enthusiastically presented her homage to the indelible female vocalists who helped put the Big Bands of 1940s and 1950s on the map.

Conjuring the contributions of such musical icons as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Anita O’Day, and beginning with my dear late-lamented friend Rosemary Clooney, Linda lovingly related stories of their splendor between numbers.

Still, even without her cordial and immediately inclusive personality guaranteed to sell the nostalgic evening and help us all forget everything else going on in our complicated world, the minute she launched into her first song, a rousing, brassy version of Steve Allen’s “This Could Be the Start of Something Big,” the diminutive Linda, like Edith Piaf or Garland herself before her, proved again that big things come in small packages.

Clad in a shimmering black sequined pantsuit, another homage to Garland, I suspect, I was immediately taken by how much she evokes the vocal resonance and lingering vibrato of both that ultimate song stylist and that of her daughter, our Miss Minnelli. Add in a unique vocal phrasing, a passionate respect for the material she obviously adores and the people who made them famous, and spending a memorable evening being entertained by the exceptional gifts of Linda Purl is nothing short of revelatory.

Along the way, we were also treated by a duet of Cole Porter’s enduring “Night and Day” with her Happy Days costar and lifelong pal Donny Most and a special appearance by 11-year-old powerhouse Nicole Estaban, discovered by Linda at a charity event, who knocked a swingin’ “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and a surprising “Route 66” right out onto McCadden Place.

The years melted away with such memorable and not today often performed standards as “It’s Alright With Me,” “My Romance,” “Caravan,” “Them There Eyes,” “‘S Wonderful,” “Just the Nearness of You,” “When the Sun Comes Out,” and “Just You, Just Me,” all evoking the brilliance of the Big Band era which crashed into our tuneful American history thanks to the likes of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, and the other great bandleaders of their golden time.

Still, Big Bands were nothing without their female vocalists. As Linda recalled from the stage, Johnny Mercer once noted there are three types of people in the world: men, women, and girl singers.

Her show is above all a tribute to the ladies who fronted those classic bands, made even more evident when she leaned one elbow on the piano and quipped about what a thrill it was for her to be sitting before us on a stool wearing sequined pants.

Of course, the most emotional moment for me came from her heartfelt eulogy to her personal favorite songstress, Rosemary Clooney, a recognition she gratefully shared with me from the stage with, “And Travis, I know you know who I’m talking about” before, with spellbinding results, tackling Rosie’s rather obscure coverage of Johnny Mercer's “Trav'lin' Light."

I could actually not help thinking of Rosie watching Linda perform, especially since she immediately shared the accessible warmth and sweet humility of the late star, someone whose friendship, along with her large and lovely Ferrer clan, we were both fortunate enough to share in our personal lives.

Luckily, soon there will be even more clooneycloning from Linda since I was told just yesterday by our other mutual love Jenny Sullivan that she will soon begin directing her in the title role in Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical,  opening this June at Santa Barbara’s celebrated Ensemble Theatre Company. A mini-vacation is in order for us fersure. I can’t wait for summer.

A sincere thanks to Catalina and that tireless entrepreneur Chris Isaacson and his prolific Chris Isaacson Presents,  which make the Southland so much better for their contributions to keep the art of cabaret alive and kicking.

For information on Linda starring in Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical, opening June 11 at the Ensemble Theatre Company in Santa Barbara, call 805-965-5400 or log on at

For info on upcoming shows from Chris Isaacson Presents, check out

For future events scheduled at Catalina Jazz Club, 6725 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, go to


Daring Sparrow Entertainment

The Buddhists say the biggest changes in the universe occur between the hours of 2 and 4am and indeed, most of the births and deaths in the world happen between those hours. Singer/songwriter Melissa Sullivan admits inspiration indeed does happen for her in the dead of night and considering her debut album is titled Late Last Night, once again the universe seems to have prevailed.

A few centuries ago during the emergence of those ancient now-historic golden days of my generation's cutting-edge music, I was Talent Coordinator for the prolific and revolutionary Troubadour folk-rock nightclubs in LA and San Francisco. There I would regularly get about 90 or 100 submissions each week from unknown musical talent who, against all odds, were desperately seeking to play the Troub, one of the country’s most established venues for discovering and nurturing new talent.

I would hear some incredible tunes and precision musicianship, most of which I had to pass on simply because I could only book so many fledgling artists, who usually were chosen to open for more established stars. What struck me most and always made me stop and listen a second time was someone or some group who brought something new and innovative to the scene, artists who created music that was not only well played but showed me a direction I'd never heard before and was obviously something unique to them alone.

Despite the considerably welcome ducats my unexpected sidetrack of a career lavished upon my youthful desire for champagne wishes and caviar dreams, I ran screaming after 13 breakneck superstoned years in the music business, an entity so ruthless and fickle it even made the old hardhearted Hollywood system seem charitable in comparion. Still, many people who actually remember my early entrepreneurial success continue to come to me with their music to get an opinion.

I especially shudder at this notion when it’s a friend offering their heartfelt and hard come-by wares for me to evaluate but even then, although I discovered and helped some of the world’s greatest and most enduring musical artists achieve success a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I consider myself a more reliable and knowledgeable reviewer of theatre and actors than I am able to knowledgeably offer critiques of musical endeavors.

I knew my generous and extraordinarily talented friend Melissa Sullivan, a longtime colleague at New York Film Academy, was working on an album of her music, but I had never heard her sing despite several invitations over the years to hear her in performance whenever she appeared at various clubs around El Lay and it’s environs. I did know Melissa was the overachieving creator and musical director of NYFA’s uber-prolific extracurricular student-fueled Glee Club and also was aware she is as much of an obsessed Tennessee Williamophile as I am, both of us often tapping scenes from his plays as material assigned to students in our acting classes.

In 2019, however, I was fortunate enough to see Melissa’s work as an actress when she appeared as Stella opposite our mutual friend Susan Priver’s Blanche in Tenn’s classic A Streetcar Named Desire at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West Los Angeles. Was she good as Stella? No. She was outstanding—so good in fact that she became my honoree last year as my annual TicketHolder Awards' Best Supporting Actress of 2019, a choice I’m often reluctant to confer upon friends since my objectivity in awarding such a thing might be considered a tad suspicious. This time out, however, Melissa Sullivan was an easy choice.

Still it was with some trepidation that I privately reacted when she sent me a download of Late Last Night, her new jazzy, bluesy album due to be released next Friday, June 26, particularly since she politely asked if I might consider writing a review of it. See, even though I do have a background in the music business and I have been writing about theatre for nearly 33 years, as I told Melissa, writing about music is something I’ve not attempted before—and nothing is more uncomfortable than to discover all the personal deep-downs that must be revealed by a friend during the overwhelmingly difficult process of creating art can as a finished project often be... shall we say... slightly less than perfect?

Luckily for me—and for the rest of us beneficiaries of a remarkable effort—as it turns out Late Last Night  and the work of one Melissa Sullivan actually is  just about perfect. This debut album is simply a stunner, a very contemporary tribute to the best of those nostalgic bygone eras of innovative jazz and deeply mournful blues, those groundbreaking American artforms that completely changed and energized the course of music forever.

And while she’s at it, Late Last Night  takes a courageous detour onto a musical side street inhabited by Big Band-era swing, wading into the often murky waters of folk music, then even leaping headfirst into a catchy and welcome turn honoring the signature cadences of Latin rhythms. Recorded at Sir Tiger Studios in Culver City, here are 10 highly diverse tracks that quickly reveal the remarkable diversity of Sullivan’s unique gifts, including eight composed by her—well, seven, including a reprise of one tune that impressively ends the album—and two exceptionally jaunty covers of a pair of American standards, each from extremely different periods of musical composition.

As a composer and lyricist, her talents are truly a revelation, filled with palpable passion and a haunting sense of loss, loneliness, and the heartache of misplaced romance. Yet the first thing to knock one’s socks off here is Melissa Sullivan’s voice, capable of vocal calisthenics that could almost make David Byrne a tad boring in comparison. Her vocals mutate from track to track with uncanny multiplicity, from a foggy, breathless Anita O’Day-like quality to the soulful vulnerability of my late-great bestie Laura Nyro to the all-out ballsiness of Janis Joplin after finishing off at least half of her usual onstage bottle of 100-proof bourbon.

Her steamy, balmy torchsong-throwback “It’s a Love” perfectly kicks off the collection with its hot, sensual percussions as she mourns the kind of carnal thrill she says she’s never known but is confident lurks deep in the shadows where her “heart can’t be wrong.” As with many of the album’s tracks, its nomadic mood is clearly reinforced by the Mose Allison-esque piano styling of her coproducer, arranger, and writing partner Peter Adams.

Sylvain Carton’s plaintive sax solo does similar service to “He’s Bad,” with Sullivan’s almost whimsical performance reminiscent of one of those woeful ballads of past loves made popular by Billie Holiday, complete with a happy ending: “I told him I quit / I’m tired of your bullshit.” Luckily for pioneers of southern delta blues, the word “bad” rhymes with “glad.”

“Miles Away” is a redolently mournful plea for the return of a sorely missed lover who has chosen to move on while “trying to hide your past,” a beautifully poetic living eulogy to the kind of intelligent explorations of the human need for love that made Joni Mitchell one of our time’s most enduring musical icons.

There’s a contemporary musical theatre quality to “Borders,” which Sullivan composed in her head one morning in her car on her way to teaching a class at NYFA. It’s a piece that would not be out of place if included in one of the most recent Broadway hit shows such as Sarah Barrielles’ Waitress  or Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey‘s If/Then.  The wistful balled—another lamenting the pain of a mislaid love as others promise her it’s “just a phase,” finished the album perfectly, but earlier in the mix it is first introduced as a spirited bilingual duet with Mexican-born musician and actor Lito de la Isla of the group Los Rumberos. After seeing the singer/composer/actor in performance, Sullivan got the inspiration for this serendipitous Latin-infused collaboration, here redubbed “Borders/Fronteras.”

Sullivan segues with ease into the unexpectedly cheerful bossa nova beat of “Marcella,” an Antonio Carlos Jobim-inspired tale of an eager admirer excited for her return to that special person who, as Tennessee Williams once noted, resides just next of one’s heart, while "Sirens” is an almost bucolic, countrified number, recalling an unforgettable afternoon of quality schtupping at “river’s bend" and featuring a raspy, powerhouse of a stadium-sized vocal that might have killed off that other half of Joplin’s ever-present bottle of Southern Comfort.

And speaking of comfort first manufactured by southerners, my favorite of the original compositions introduced on Late Last Night  is another stirring love ballad called “Adrian,” which brilliantly incorporates layers of backup vocals also overdubbed Nyro-style by Sullivan as she rues the ephemeral nature of courtship when she was young and naive and kept her “heart on a shelf.” To make this song even more personally satisfying to me, it is set within the backdrop of my beloved home-away-from-home New Orleans’ disastrous Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as The Storm (as it’s called there) “keeps raging“ outside and this gossamer early love is found and then lost.

The album’s other two tracks are those aforementioned covers. Melissa sometimes sounds like a cross between Morgana King and Blossom Dearie in her whimsical interpretation of Percy Mayfield’s 1953 time-honored standard “Lost Mind,” crying that she’s “lost my mind in wild romance” over a “devil with the face of an angel” as “cruel and sweet as homemade sin.” Close your eyes listening to this track and you might just find yourself transported directly to one of those crowded, smoke-filled little hotspots along the French Quarter’s Frenchmen Street, especially as Adams’ notable piano solo gives a loving nod to Master Mose, the guy made this tune a classic in 1963.

Sullivan’s fortuitous cohort Peter Adams is also a revelation, his arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s vintage 1941 “Skylark,” along with his partner’s sweetly simple and gorgeous vocal phrasing, can also send you on a musical magic carpet spin back in time, for me to Chicago’s Rush Street in the 1960s where I first fell in love with lyrical jazz and the artists who so fervidly preserve it.

Just when you think you have an idea of what emotional triggers Late Last Night can spark in you, something all-new and totally unexpected will next toy with your sensibilities, a tease that I promise will be gratefully welcomed as we all try to survive our daily lives just now with its daily rollercoaster ride of assaults and disappointments on both a national and global scale.

I was trepidatious first listening to Late Last Night but let me tell you, my admiration for the unearthly gifts of Melissa Sullivan has grown exponentially, from cherishing a talented friend and colleague to settling somewhere awfully close to goddess status.

Melissa Sullivan’s Late Last Night  is available on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Deezer, or at

 LE REVE at the Wynn Hotel, Las Vegas

Photo by Travis Michael Holder

Cirque du Soleil has reinvented the once-dilapidated Las Vegas Strip dramatically over the past quarter-century—and perhaps the chief architect of this monumental change from processed cheese spread to imported brie is Franco Dragone. For many years, this guy was a major creative force behind the Cirque’s astounding rise to international success and in 2005 was celebrated with even more reverence for creating the gorgeously evocative Le Reve, the celebrated permanent long-running resident at the sumptuous Wynn Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Credited with “founding the artistic soul” of Cirque after being recruited by the fledgling Montreal-based troupe in 1985, Dragone began his long tenure with the company working on the aptly named Le Cirque Reinvente. Over the next 15 years, he was almost singlehandedly responsible for creating the Cirque’s amazingly successful touring shows Nouvelle Experience, Saltimbanco, Alegria, Quidam, and La Nouba.

Over the ensuing years, millions of patrons worldwide have entered the brilliant mind of Dragone as brought to life in those unearthly touring shows, but surely nothing will secure him a place in the history of the performing arts more than his work in Vegas. Initially the genius behind Mystere, the company’s first permanent attraction which opened at Treasure Island in 1993, and then with the mesmeric “O” at the Bellagio, opening that groundbreaking former Steve Wynn hotel in 1998, both permanent Dragone productions continue to play on to packed houses to this day.

Still, Dragone longed to create without any limitations and, in 2000, he did the unthinkable, leaving Cirque du Soleil to strike out on his own. Six years later, he became a far more important figure in the artistic evolution of Sin City by inventing two of the grandest presentations to date to energize the Strip: Celine Dion’s original show at Caesars Palace, deemed so spectacular that it inadvertently made its star look even more like an Iowan housewife than usual, and Le Reve, his haunting “small collection of imperfect dreams.”

It wasn’t long after Dragone split from the Cirque that unstoppably prolific hotelier Steve Wynn approached him to create a show to become the flagship for his phenomenal new mega-resort. Housed in a majestic auditorium-sized theatre built at the Wynn entirely for the show, the otherworldly Le Reve (“The Dream”) revolves around a huge 68½-foot pool of water where audience members join the consciousness of a young woman swooning in her sleep in a flowered bier worthy of Sleeping Beauty for a breakneck 90 minutes of aerial and aquatic splendor never before seen on any stage.

Led in a somnambulant state through a series of wild adventures by the wizard-like Dream Master (Didier Antoine, who also designed the original aerial concepts in the show), our sleepwalking ingenue is repeatedly approached by two sensuous suitors, the princelike True Love and the ominous Dark Passion—as well as a couple of comic relief Lancelot Gobbos thrown in for good measure—who haunt her journey through a hallucinogenic dreamstate that defies the bounds of conventional reality.

The original cost of creating this extravaganza and building its own 2,087-seat theatre with no seat farther than 42 feet from the playing space has stealthily not been disclosed, but comparable shows housed permanently on the Strip when it debuted in 2005 averaged around $30 to $40 million. Since this is theatre-in-the-round and no wing or storage space is available offstage to hold elaborate movable set pieces, designer Claude Santerre’s incredibly mammoth hydraulic-controlled pieces mostly either rise from the water or are flown in from above, as are many of the performers themselves.

As live white doves flutter above our heads and the score by longtime Dragone collaborator Benoit Jutras (Mystere, “O,” Quidam) contributes a mixture of a live band and vocals with eerie recorded folk music from Serbia, a series of lifts emerge from below to create a stage when needed, rising and dipping, breaking apart and, for the show’s extraordinary final tableaux, turning into a fountain to rival Bethesda. The almost hallucinatory newly redesigned lighting effects by Koert Vermeulen shimmer off the water’s surface as the jaw-dropping special effects simulate rain, snow, and fire.

Now redesigned since I first saw the show in 2005 and under the innovative direction of Phillip Wm. McKinley and Production Designer Michel Crete, there’s an almost palpable reverence and respect for the water obvious in the work of Le Reve’s unique assemblage of gratefully scantily-clad performers, a collective appreciation amongst the cast for its power and a celebration of its inherent beauty. With brilliantly colorful and gorgeously sensual costuming designed by Claude Renard able to withstand both acrobatic stretching and emersion into water—but still demanding replacement every two weeks due to the rigors of the show—the 86 onstage athletes, gymnasts, Olympic champions, high-divers and world-class swimmers are of course the heart of this ensemble was hand chosen from some of the most amazing artists performing all over the world.

Of course, the name Le Reve came to Wynn in honor of one of his many art treasures, Pablo Picasso’s infamous 1932 portrait of the same name portraying his 22-year-old mistress Marie-Therese Walter—you know, that painting, the one Wynn accidentally stuck an elbow through while showing it off to friends in 2005. It is perfectly honored here, complete with a gossamer hint of Spanish themes weaving through the action, especially the thrilling tangos and paso dobles choreographed by Giuliano Peparini performed around the rim of the stage circle while the swimmers and divers do their thing.

Which brings me to the seating for Le Reve, because I have a new favorite place to view the wonders here. The very back row of the arena is called the Dream Seating section, a well-placed bank of luxurious velvet-covered loungers surrounding the entire stage. Patrons willing to give up a few more of those hard-earned buckaroos watch the show not only from the stage but from their own private video monitors placed right before them.

Shooting the action first in the bowels of the theatre as the cast and dressers and technicians prepare to go onstage, the monitors follow the performers as they take the elevators to the overhead area to strap in for Le Reve’s first human aerial assault from above. The cameras then offer another spectacular and totally unique view underwater during the performance as the artists hook up with 16 scuba divers to utilize air stations and move equipment into place for the next wonder to come.

The next section of seats closer to the stage is called the Golden Circle, which the producers say is the best view of the entire experience, followed by the panoramic Grandview section, offering a sweeping view of both the stage and the entire theatre.

Still, the first two rows of seats closest to the action are called the Poolside Seats and during this, my third time seeing Le Reve, I decided I wanted to check it out from there for the first time. I asked if this meant we should expect to be splashed or if the house handed out raincoats as they do seated close at the Blue Man Group at Monte Carlo, but I was told we might get hit with about five drops, but that was about it—and they were right, except for a little misting we didn’t mind at all.

So here’s the deal: for me, the Poolside Seating was the best placement so far. Not only is it the least expensive section in which to purchase tickets, as it’s thought to have a limited view of the show, it doesn’t. Instead, it delivers an incredible 3-D panorama of worldclass artistry and outrageous feats of skill which happen right directly in front of and high above you. And at the risk of sounding all Harvey Weinstein-y (or in my case, all Kevin Spacey-y), if you’re a connoisseur of gorgeously-toned young bodies costumed in the barest essentials of aerodynamic swimwear emerging from the water dripping wet only a few feet in front of you, Poolside is the perfect place to be.

As much as I have adored repeated viewings of “O” over the past two decades since I attended its indelibly memorable opening night in 1998, from the first time I experienced the sheer wonder of Le Reve, I couldn’t help feeling it makes its illustrious predecessor look a tad anemic in comparison. Maybe it was seeing those same tired sailor clowns in their stained Navy whites plug the same old holes on their sinking house for the umpteenth time that made me want to run for the nearest exit when I last saw “O,” but Le Reve’s bolder incarnation of unique water-based entertainment is a far more adventurous journey.



It was in the early 1970s when, as Talent Coordinator of The Boarding House in San Francisco, I booked Bette Midler at the club and the Troubadour in LA on her first national tour. Mutual friends transplanted from New York hosted a welcome for the Divine Miss M at their massive Pacific Heights mansion and told me they had hired a special treat for those gathered, a group of outrageously costumed and unstoppably goofy local street entertainers to surprise guests as they infiltrated the party.

Suddenly, there they were: a line of hula-dancing middle-aged housewives in Carmen Miranda headdresses and a bunch of male dancers dressed as poodles, among other wonderfully bizarre visual oddities. I had heard of the Rent-a-Freaks but never had seen them in person. To say they were the hit of the night would be a massive understatement.

Then less than a year or so later, when SF mimes Robert and Lorraine Shields were married (silently, of course) in Union Square, there were the Rent-a-Freaks again and this time I went to David Allen, my boss at the club, to suggest booking them as a possible opening act for the upcoming engagement of a new unknown little singing group called the Pointer Sisters.

My former boss at the LA Troub, Doug Weston, had opened the Boarding House as the Troubadour North in 1970 and I commuted between the two locations, nothing as glamorous as it may sound. When David took over the lease two years later, he got me fulltime along with the deal; after commuting between the two cites for too long, I decided I’d officially left my you-know-what in you-know-where and the rest is history.

David already knew about the Rent-a-Freaks since its creator, Steve Silver, had been a ticket-tearer at the infamous hungry i in North Beach, the club David had managed and brought to national attention by presenting such previously unknown talents as Lenny Bruce, Mort Saul, Bill Cosby, Barbra Streisand, and Joan Rivers.

Just about the time I approached Steve about playing the club, the Freaks had quickly grown into a far more elaborate musical revue and he was considering changing the name of the troupe. Soon, his Rent-a-Freaks would forevermore be known as Beach Blanket Babylon and the show rapidly became a San Francisco phenomenon, perhaps the only city in America at that time willing to embrace their silliness and brazenly off-centered humor that spared nothing and no one.

In the summer of 1974, BBB crammed revelers into a 214-seat space at the Savoy Tivoli Restaurant in North Beach, where a guy dressed in speedos climbed a lifeguard tower to manipulate lighting made from coffee cans over a floor covered with sand—and Steve’s immensely game and talented band of looneys have never stopped working since.

Debuting in 1975 at their own permanent space, a reclaimed 1913 Italian community center in the Russian Hill district of North Beach called Club Fugazi, he continued to loan out his troupe for charitable and public events, including honoring Queen Elizabeth II in 1983 and subsequently opening versions in London and Las Vegas. Steve was thrilled when his brainstorm was recognized at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park with their own exhibit called Beach Blanket Babylon: 15 Years of Hats and Costumes and, five years later, an expanded version of the show played the grandly austere San Francisco War Memorial Opera House to celebrate its 20th anniversary.   

BBB has become a huge tourist attraction and a major part of San Francisco nightlife in the ensuing years, playing over 16,000 performances at Club Fugazi and seen by over 6 million people from all corners of the world. Under Steve’s generous stewardship, it also became a constant champion of health, education, and arts funding in the City by the Bay and, for San Franciscans, the revue today remains a local treasure and its innovative creator is memorialized with a bronze bust installed outside the venue that brought tears to me weary ol' eyes.

“The show belonged to Steve, but many of us feel it belongs to us,” said Charlotte Maillard Swig, former chief of protocol for the city when Steve Silver passed away of AIDS in 1995 at the tragically too-early age of 51. The following year, San Francisco officially changed the name of the 600 block of Green Street where the Club Fugazi is located to Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd., where the show still holds court and is today known as the world’s longest-running musical revue.

What has kept BBB in the spotlight when other such ventures have long since outlived their welcome? Simply, the onstage proceedings never stop evolving. Over the years, the costumes have gotten even more outrageous, the enormous hats worn by the castmembers have gotten even more enormous and, above all, writers Kenny Mazlow and Jo Schuman Silver, Steve’s widow and the show’s dedicated producer, never stop finding current events and pop-culture celebrities to royally skewer.

No one is off-limits here, from standard classic BBB characters such as Wonder Woman, Mr. Peanut, Oprah Winfrey, Tina Turner, and Glinda the Good Witch to some of our time’s most notorious political figures, as Snow White travels the world searching for her Prince Charming to get her away from those seven annoying little taskmasters telling her what to do.

Still, as I say, a great deal of the show’s continued success is in its constant updating, with new characters added to keep it constantly fresh and hot. Currently there are visits from Kim Jong-Un, Vladimir Putin, Barack and Michelle Obama, Kim Kardashian, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Lady Gaga, Colin Kaepernick, Elizabeth Warren, Beyonce, Bernie Sanders and, of course, there’s a properly vacant stumble-on from Sarah Palin.

Our current abhorrant administration is anything but ignored, as Steve Bannon and Sarah Huckabee Sanders lead the way for the revue’s current showstopper, the Von Trump Family, with Ivanka, Don Jr., Eric, Barron, and the "other one" leading the way for the entrance their illustrious parents. Melania and Dotard Donnie himself take the stage greeted by an immediate round of enthusiastic jeering emanating from all sides and levels of the club’s gathered audience, much to my personal gratification.

Thankfully, those dancing poodles are still a feature, as is the towering headgear worn by the performers, including one donned in the sensational finale that takes over nearly half of the stage and incorporates all of San Francisco’s major landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Coit Tower, AT&T Park, and the Transamerica Pyramid, which not only lights up but grows in height as the performers vie for attention below.

Even more significant than the spectacle is the worldclass talent of the performers themselves, including BBB’s longtime headliners Tammy Nelson, neck-challenged bearer of the aforementioned city-themed headdress, and Renee Lubin, two performers who have been with the show for, respectively, 25 and over 30 years. Their celebrity has not only come from longevity, as these two ladies both have amazing comedic skills overshadowed by voices that could fill the Curran without electronic amplification if the show ever transferred there.

As Snow White, Rena Wilson delivers with delightful Imogene Coca-inspired awkwardness, Jacqui Heck is dynamic as Wonder Woman and also a knockout salsa-infused Carmen Miranda, while Jim Appleby is the perfect James Brown, among others. Curt Branom is totally hilarious in all his guises, particularly a wildly effete pink-wigged King Louis XIV, an Elizabethan Liberace on steroids.

Lauren Howard is a standout throughout, but it’s her Hillary Clinton, with hips so wide she can’t even hide ‘em behind her podium, and a dead-on lethally-fingernailed send-up of Barbra Streisand that steal the show. And that chorusline of tail-waggin’ poodles, Ryan Cowles, Derek Lux, and Doug Magpiong, step out expertly in all their incarnations, especially Cowles as Caitlin Jenner, Magpiong as King Elvis himself, and Lux nailing it as our pants-less Celebrity Appresident. Surely, Stormy Daniels can't be far behind.

A serendipitous highlight for us was being seated behind an extremely affectionate and obviously newly-minted couple, two very drunk ladies who ordered several expensive bottles of champagne as though it were Fiji water, tipped the waiter like rappers, and obviously enjoyed the performance.

When not pawing one another, they screamed and hollered and flailed their arms throughout—that is until the cast took the stage as the Von Trumps. Suddenly, the audiences’ collective booing shocked them and instantly changed their demeanor, causing them to bury their faces in their hands as all of their spirited revelry dissolved like a NDA signed by a Presidential hooker.

The girls continued to be shocked—no, outraged—by the goings-on of the White House’s resident Tyrolians, eventually resorting to their cellphones, each madly sending individual angry texts that concluded with one turning to the other and loudly declaring over the music, “That will put a stop to that.”

Soon after, however, the pair was back to cheering the performers, applauding and hooting loudly at curtaincall—that is until the Von Trumps retook the stage. That at least proves Steve and Jo Silver’s cottage industry hit has something for everyone, even that humorless minority known as the Republicants.

Scoff while you can, you deluded dinosaurs; the tar is quickly lapping at your heels while the zany fun of Beach Blanket Babylon and the groundbreaking legacy of the Silvers will live on long after you’re gratefully dun ‘n buried. And while you're at it, take your arrogant leader down into the slime with you, won't you please?

After 45 years, over 16,000 performances, and 6.5 million viewers, BEACH BLANKET BABYLON sadly closed on December 31, 2019.  End of an era much? A trip to SF is less of an event without it...

 Criss Angel's MINDFREAK at Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas 

When Believe, Criss Angel’s original collaborative production with Cirque du Soleil, debuted at the Luxor nearly a decade ago, I got myself in a heap of trouble. For once, a critic was seen as criticizing other critics and you’d have thought I was a doctor blackballed for badmouthing other doctors. My colleagues sure could dish it out but not take it and all that. I, in turn, found their distemper rather funny. At least I knew people were reading me.

Still, when Believe opened in 2008, I was part of a definite minority. See, I liked it. Most reviewers were not kind and when I wrote about the experience, I noted for anyone in the business of reviewing theatrical productions—or for anyone attempting to critique anything as illusive and subjective as the creation of any artform—the most important thing is to maintain a perpetual sense of wonder for this miraculous evolution of the inherently intangible. The ability to enter every situation with a blank slate is the key, but since most of us crusty old critics spend our lives dissecting anything mounted for public consumption, it’s easy to get a tad jaded and lose that initial sense of amazement, to somehow gradually compromise our original hushed respect for the creative process.

Keeping this in mind, the reviews for Believe were decidedly mixed. For me, the problem was most of the show’s critics had forgotten to wipe away all those nasty expectations and failed to keep that slate clear as though they’ve never seen a Cirque du Soleil production before. Guaranteed, if this had been the first exposure to the continuously stellar work offered by the Cirque—or, for that matter, a first look at the individual style and signature talents of Criss Angel—those same writers would have been sufficiently awestruck.

This also seemed to be the problem in reverse for a lot of diehard fans who felt Angel’s non-traditional roughhewn sleight-of-hand style was missing and that the artistry of the Cirque’s lyrical dreamlike splendor got in the way, that the show’s balletic rabbits, ethereal musical score, and 20-ton industrial steamrollers had nothing to do with watching their Joe Pesci-voiced heavy-metal-clad cult hero do his thing. See, again: if no one had any preconceptions of what to expect, I’m convinced no one would be disenchanted with Believe for a minute.

As Cirque founder and perpetual guide Guy Laliberte commented at a press conference in the theatre theafternoon of the production’s glittery opening on Halloween night, 2008, “What we’ve concocted together is a blend of the Cirque’s artistic knowledge with the mysteries of what is Criss’ magic.” Don’t let anyone tell you it was anything different: it was a haunting, one-of-a-kind production that truly defied anyone’s expectations, even the creators’ original concepts, I’m sure. But Believe was never the runaway hit that other Cirque shows are in Vegas and so last year, they agreed to let Angel reinvent their long-contracted collaboration. The result is Mindfreak Live, far more evocative of the magician’s once highly-popular cable TV show of the same name and without any Russian acrobats flying over our heads in their skivvies.

Beginning with a wonderfully rocked-out, loud and choppy video montage featuring photos from Angel’s angelic youth and ending with scenes from his TV show, two brazenly Vegas-y assistants, the pintsized Mateo Amieva, who sounds a little like Desi Arnaz on helium, and zoftig Judy Holliday-clone Penny Wiggins (Psychic Tanya in The Amazing Johnathan’s show at the old Sahara), take the stage to attempt magic that of course intentionally doesn’t work. It's a bit of an overkill as they poke fun at Amieva’s stature and broken English, interspersed with slightly offcolor jokes about Wiggins' intelligence and sexual appitite.

It's frankly all rather underwhelming until the bare-chested Mindfreak himself descends from above, his wonders to perform. Angel is amazingly charismatic and, considering the interview I did with him 10 years ago was on the eve of his 40th birthday, one must begin to wonder if he has a portrait of himself locked in a closet somewhere really going to hell. Though quick to point out at any point how legendary he is, modestly slipping in that he's often heralded as the "best magician in the world,"  there's some unbelievably jaw-dropping stuff offered here. These include watching one of his many nubile blonde honeys (who interestingly all look like Holly Madison, his girlfriend when I met him in 2008) sawed in half by an enormous FuManchu-sized buzzsaw, her two wriggling disembodied halves bleeding profusely and looking as though handed down from one of the legion of Sharknado sequels.

Although I could have done without the cheesy old-style assistants (except perhaps one hilarious sight gag as Wiggins tries to explain how she scored comps for the Blue Man Group without realizing she has blue makeup smeared all over her mouth), the singular star of this show is Criss Angel. He immediately dominates the stage with his raucous street performer's delivery, pontificating to his disciples with that familiar Lon-gah Island accent reminiscent of Tony Curtis pointing out “Yondah lies da castle of my fadda," as he makes live doves appear from his studded leather sleeves and dramatically escapes from a straightjacket suspended Houdini-like high overhead.

There’s no doubt the guy aces some mind-blowing magic but surprisingly, Mindfreak Live relies on delivering mostly standard illusions, so there’s not much unexpected here. There are hints of pure brilliance, but this show could be absolute dynamite if it tried a little harder to introduce something new, not just resurrect Angel’s familiar tricks and the rather dated Goth-inspired performance style which first brought him attention back when Paul Stanley still painted a star over his right eye.

Billed as "A New Breed of Magic," it really isn't, exactly. Granted, it is suitably in-your-face, with lots of shimmering glitz, massive fire effects, sensational live musicians, incredible video game-inspired sets, and more than its share of tiny-waisted showgirls with the best abs on the planet. But unlike David Copperfield, whose show down the street always features fresh illusions never before attempted, one could always watch old episodes of Angel's TV show and see the same act.

Since writing this review, Criss Angel’s tenancy at the Luxor has ended after over a decade and his show has moved into Planet Hollywood for another extended run. I’m sure his exceptional talent and streetwise charisma are still the heart and soul of Mindfreak and for many, just seeing him in person will be more than enough. As for me, I guess I'm one of those world-weary curmudgeonly old critics after all

But then again... there is THAT.