To Joni Mitchell on her 80th Birthday: A Loving Tribute  

Catalina Jazz Club

It was about three thousand years ago when, as Talent Coordinator of LA’s infamous Troubadour folk-rock club during the peak of its golden years in the late 60s and early 70s, I was responsible for finding and booking raw undiscovered talent. I was tipped by the manager of a friend that I had to check out his newest client, a reserved Saskatchewan protégé of David Crosby who sang her own tunes and played her acoustic guitar some Sundays in the backroom of McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.

Although I loved my Sunday afternoons spent as far away from the music scene as I could possibly manage, I reluctantly folded up my towel early, shook out the Venice Beach sand, and puffed on a little inspiration as I headed east up Pico to McCabe’s. The small gaggle of already ardent fans gathered there was beginning to collectively shift on the impromptu club’s unmerciful folding chairs when an ethereal, hesitant lass in her early 20s stealthily made her way to the stage.

Peeking out warily from beneath exaggerated bangs cut into long, gravity-challenged blonde hair, on first impression this bashful flowerchild seemed an unlikely candidate for musical stardom to me, but as she quietly launched into the first bars of “Song to a Seagull,” the readjusting of uncomfortable backsides against metal stopped, replaced by stunned attentive silence and, if I myself was any indication, a few dropped jaws.

During my tenure at the Troub I received close to a hundred demo tapes each week and sat through the sets of many, many hopeful performers with drastically varying degrees of aptitude who waited—sometimes overnight—to sign up for our über-popular amateur “Hoot Night,” which took over the stage each Monday evening at the club. I had learned one thing from those windmill chasers determined to poke their heads above the surface in the shark-filled waters of the music business: there are a lot of talented people out there, but only a few courageous enough to try something new.

Innovation had become the key to getting my attention, the ability to create something different from the standard fare that had made successes of the current crop of superstars. Sitting that night in McCabe’s, I knew this shy young Canadian playing her sad little guitar a few feet in front of me had that quality in spades.

Not long after, Roberta Joan Anderson came to play the Troubadour for the first time and, as they say, the rest is history. I learned right then and there to trust my friends, especially since it was the late-great Laura Nyro who turned me on to Miss Anderson’s music and the manager both groundbreaking music business icons were prophetically to share was David Geffen.

Fast forward to our Brave New Severely Screwed World and on November 7, 2023, the former Ms. Anderson began her ninth decade on the planet. Although this fact is nearly incomprehensible to me, LA’s incredibly prolific concert producer Chris Isaacson celebrated the occasion bigtime by presenting an incredible one night quickly sold-out event honoring the icon at the thankfully again flourishing Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood entitled, To Joni Mitchell on her 80th Birthday: A Loving Tribute.

Isaacson and Catalina hosted a staggering array of some of today’s best vocalists and musicians at the popular supper club that night, led by former American Idol and America’s Got Talent associate musical director Michael Orland, a man who makes creating music look deceptively easy.

With a band prominently featuring LA-based guitar phenom John Storie, co-founder of the award winning New West Guitar Group and notable member of Jeff Goldblum’s Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, as well as Ahmet Turkmenoglu on bass, Jose Perez on percussion, Stephan Hovsepian on guitar and violin, it was clear each and every vocalist would be thrilled to be working in such prestigious company.

There was, as expected, uniform reverence for Queen Joni, who recording artist and former Bette Midler Harlette Melanie Taylor rightfully acknowledged as providing the “blueprint” for all singer/songwriters who have followed in her formidable footsteps.

Taylor offered spectacular renditions of Mitchell standards “River” from her 1971 album Blue, now also well-known as a Christmas standard; “Raised on Robbery” from 1974’s Court and Spark; and the seldom performed “Edith and the Kingpin” from 1976’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns album.

The sensational Alisan Porter, a well-seasoned actor who began working early on as one of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Gang and went on to win TV’s The Voice in 2016, knocked Joni’s plaintive early 70’s ballads “For Free” and “A Case of You,” as well as the great classic from 1974 “Help Me (I Think I’m Fallin’),” right out of Catalina and out onto McCadden Place.

Frankie Jordan, American Idol contestant whose Dear Amy tribute to Amy Winehouse has thrilled audiences far and near, delivered a spirited “Big Yellow Taxi” from Joni’s 1970’s groundbreaking album Ladies of the Canyon; Australian humanist singer/songwriter Shelley Segal offered Blue’s “My Old Man;” and gifted Armenian songstress Tamara Lalayan brought total silence to the house with a staggeringly beautiful rendition of “Love” from Court and Spark accompanied by her fellow countryman, notable piano virtuoso Artur Zakiyan.

Although acknowledging it was nearly impossible to directly follow Lalayan and Zakiyan, nine-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton did a purdy fine job doing just that, scatting through startlingly exciting and innovative arrangements of “All I Want” from Blue and a brilliant matchup of Joni’s “Free Man in Paris” with Vernon Duke’s 1932 classic “April in Paris.”

Before finishing with the entire company leading the audience in a spirited sing-a-long rendition of the classic Joni tune “The Circle Game” from Ladies of the Canyon, the evening ended with an amazing turn from Brenna Whitaker, whose Universal Music debut album was produced by another of my early Troubadour discoveries David Foster, delivering an indelible version of “Both Sides, Now” from the grand lady’s second album Clouds, first released in 1969 and instrumental in putting her on the map.

Catalina’s fabulous To Joni concert proved to be a joyous, uplifting evening I’ll never forget despite two disappointments. I was so looking forward to a rare appearance by my old friend and musical theatre/cabaret superstar Joan Ryan, star of the great musical parody “Ruthless!” here in 1993, who had to drop out of the lineup of performers at the last minute due to a slight case of Covid and hence robbed me of a much-needed overdue hug.

The biggest letdown was the much-anticipated possible surprise appearance by the reclusive Mizz Mitchell herself who, despite numerous emails and texts from everyone who adores her, decided to stay home and celebrate in her own inimitable style instead.   

Still, the nearly palpable specter of our time’s most cherished singer/songwriter was everywhere at Catalina Jazz Club on Joni Mitchell's 80th birthday. Surely the warmth and wonder and affection for her genius must have wafted from Sunset Boulevard all the way up Lookout Mountain to give our generation’s greatest, most beloved and prolific musical genius at least a moment of subliminal jouissance. 

Happy Birthday, my old friend!

And to the rest of the world... you're quite welcome!

The Producers, Teatre Tivoli, Barcelona 

Teatre Tivoli, Barcelona, Spain

Talk about a Busman’s Holiday! Who knew when I left for Spain to teach my acting intensives for Felipe Havarek’s South American-based Livin’ Arts Presenta that I’d be celebrating my birthday sitting in the audience of the modern classic musical The Producers, performed in Spanish at an incredible 104-year-old theatre in Barcelona.

A monument to Nouventisme architecture designed by one of the country’s most distinguished and groundbreaking Catalan architects Miguel Madorell i Ruiz, Teatre Tivoli has been a major cultural attraction in Spain since opening in 1919, premiering many important works over the past century including opera, ballet, zarzuela, cinema, as well as presenting many historic concerts by folks such as Bruce Springsteen.

I wasn’t sure what to expect here, but this incredibly grand $2.7 million mounting of Mel Brooks’ musical theatre classic would make the master himself proud. Directed by Angel Llacer, a well-known Spanish TV personality who doubles onstage as Roger de Bris (here Roger de Bacle), the world’s most obnoxiously flamboyant cross-dressing theatre director, this delightful reimagining of the 12-time Tony-winning Best Musical of 2001 is one of the best mountings yet delivered.

If there was ever a musical that bridged the language barrier for someone as embarrassingly devoid of Spanish as I am, it is The Producers, which traditionally embraces the most over-the-top playing style first introduced in Brooks’ original non-musical motion picture way back in 1969. It lends itself perfectly to exaggeration and Llacer and his team certainly pulls out all the stops.

The Roberto Begnini-esque Armando Pita is a joy in the Nathan Lane role of slimy but somehow endearing Broadway producer down on his luck Max Bialystock, and Ricky Mata as his neurotic accountant, initially reluctant victim, and eventual doomed business partner, is hands-down the best Leo Bloom I’ve ever seen—part Cantinflas, part Stan Laurel, and all future triple-threat international musical theatre royalty in a perfect world.

Jose Luis Mosquera is hilarious as that lovable Nazi-loving pigeon fancier playwright Franz Liekind and every dang ensemble member is extremely talented, outrageously game for anything, and also are masters of the rapid quick change.

Bittor Fernandez as Roger’s supergay valet Carmen Ghia (here redubbed Carmen Age-A-Trois), steals virtually every scene he’s in and, from the ranks, dancer Enric Marimon, owner-operator of Broadway House Madrid where we held our recent workshops, is a major standout throughout—whether clothed or not.

Still, the most impressive turns come from Mata in his scenes with Mireia Portas as Ulla, the Swedish-born secretary Max and Leo hire despite her lack of the usual qualifications needed to take dictation. Portas, who is the antithesis of the original amazonian Broadway star Cady Huffman, holds her own despite being as tiny as Huffman is tall, and the golden chemistry between this Leo and Ulla is downright contagious. And for me, hearing Spanish spoken with a Swedish accent is something I'll never forget.

The totally tongue-in-cheek production numbers, under the baton of co-director and noted Spanish musical director Manu Guix, are all worthy of Florenz Ziegfeld, and Llacer has added one crafty addition to the show’s always surprisingly underwhelming Act Two.

As the audience filters back into the house, the word “AUDICIONES” is projected on the curtain while the lead performers grab a trio of unsuspecting patrons from their seats to join the troupe onstage to audition for the show’s coveted role of Adolph Hitler in the musical’s biggest production number, here called “Flores A Hitler.”

Each is given their very own little Fuhrer mustache and is asked to sing a song, but when the third reluctant volunteer (spoiler alert, but hey, this show is performing 6,025 miles from LA so what are the odds?) launches into the character’s real song from the show, Mosquera’s displaced Nazi playwright storms the stage, pushes him away, and wins the role. Can you say… plant?

I cannot think of a better way to spend one’s 77th birthday than being knocked out by this sparkling, effervescent, charmingly exaggerated and extravagant take on The Producers, a production that quickly proves comedy is a universal language in itself. Never once did I miss a laugh; with these uber-skilled performers all exhibiting worldclass timing and comic chops, I was in theatrical heaven from first curtain to final.

MS. TUCKER WILL SEE YOU NOW 

Gardenia Supper Club

I don’t usually cover events without a scheduled closing date but Laural Meade’s solo turn celebrating the life and career of the great Sophie Tucker proved an exception even before Ms. Tucker Will See You Now  was announced to return for several monthly encores at the Gardenia, the oldest supper club in America—an event that possibly will become a regular returnee at the 43-year-old Los Angeles institution.

Meade asks early on how many people in her audience are familiar with the work of Tucker, bringing a rather spotty response from those gathered. The number of people obviously interested in cabaret and nightclub performance unaware of the controversial life and career of the once-infamous chanteuse, an artist the lategreat Tony Bennett called the most underappreciated jazz singer of the last century, was a bit disheartening.

Tucker, known internationally as the “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas,” was one of the most popular entertainers during the first half of the 20th century who enjoyed a career spanning over six decades, beginning by wowing crowds at a vaudeville amateur night in 1907 that led to her starring in one of the earliest versions of the Ziegfeld Follies—and ended with one of many appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show a year before her death and an engagement at the Latin Quarter in 1966 a few weeks before she made her final bow at age 80.

With the invaluable assistance of brilliant LA-based composer-accompanist Gregory Nabours on piano, the surprising shortcoming of patrons familiar with Tucker was soon rectified as Meade launched into a long overdue glorification of her legend and her music, performing some of the diva’s most famous songs peppered with stories about her life and even passages from her 1945 biography Some of These Days, named after one of Tucker’s most well-known standards.

Of course, the Ukrainian born Sofiya Kalish, whose Jewish family immigrated to Boston in 1887 when she was only a year old, was as much recognized and is still remembered for her bawdy, off-color material and banter as she is her music, developing a raunchy and self-effacing delivery that must have curled the toes of the easily shocked audiences of her time who proved to be equally traumatized and titillated.

It was that aspect of Tucker’s act that first intrigued and inspired Bette Midler, whose character Soph, spouting rampant sexual jabs aimed at her fictional boyfriend Ernie, was an early highlight of her own meteoric career. In Ms. Tucker, Meade not only pays homage to the original Red-Hot Mama but to Midler, Belle Barth, Joan Rivers, and Phyllis Diller, among others, even sharing ferociously risqué jokes from each of the crowd-pleasing entertainers, all of whom acknowledged a debt to Tucker for their own success.

Meade does not spare herself from inclusion in the self-deprecating humor of the incredibly groundbreaking performer, delivering knockout interpretations of such Tucker classics as “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl” and “I Don’t Want to Get Thin,” as well as delivering some of her many laments kvetching about her lifelong unsuccessful quest for finding true love—without paying for it.

The set list for Ms. Tucker also doesn’t defer from detailing the star’s own history for wild sexual abandon even before the era of free love enjoyed by folks of my own generation, including “My Husband’s in the City” and a raucous medley of numbers about cheating lovers, most featuring innuendos about what fun it can be to give a wandering mate a lustful taste of their own medicine.

Beginning with the 1930 hit “No One But the Right Man (Can Do Me Wrong),” with lyrics credited to the star herself by some music historians, to subsequent renditions of her signature “Some of These Days” delivered as it was first recorded in 1911 and later the more brassy and notorious 1930s version, Meade aces the material without resorting to the familiar Midler-popularized Mae West-y pastiche of Tucker.

Between songs, we learn about a solitary life in the shadow of great celebrity, as well as learning an awful lot about Meade’s personal story, also filled with the challenges and self-induced resurrections that Tucker endured—especially understandable from a former good little born-again-bred Christian lass from Glendale who obviously still has to take a momentary swallow before uttering the “C” word.

Meade handles all of this with charming self-deprecation and an uncanny, blisteringly honest ability to poke fun at herself, a trait which the before-her-time Tucker surely would have appreciated wholeheartedly.

To end a perfect evening and abruptly halt the shared laughter and our willingness to go along with the jokes no matter how shockingly ribald or even occasionally cruel they may be, Meade delivers an arrestingly poignant and indelibly memorable version of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” that alone could make the professional cabaret rise of a brave and intensely gifted late-blooming college professor something as worth appreciating as the career of Ms. Tucker herself.

Still, I was thinking over my second Aperol Spritz at the Gardenia that, with the 9,745th touring company of Les Miserables opening the same week at the Pantages as the night I attended Laural Meade’s Ms. Tucker Will See You Now, wouldn’t it be a great in-joke to change the title to simply... Les Miz Tucker?

Get it? LES Miz Tucker?

I thought you would.

Strange Resume Tour: The Return of the Return

Photo by Travis Michael Holder

Catalina Jazz Club

30APR23: It’s always a major event when New York-based cabaret icon, jazz vocalist, songwriter, cult film star, theatre artist, drag performer, and noted fashionista of Thierry Mugler dominatrix finery Joey Arias returns to his hometown to share some of his unique gifts with us grateful Angelenos. Rarer still is when he returns two times in five months.

“I’m five years sober and still flyin’ high, bitches,” he proclaims from the stage of the Catalina Jazz Club, perhaps explaining his energy level traveling the country on a breakneck schedule doing sold-out one-night appearances. And that familiar looking beer bottle behind the piano he swigs from between songs? “It’s ginger beer,” he admits. “And it tastes like cum.”

It was last October when local hero Chris Isaacson presented the grandest of grand divas in his Return of Joey Arias tour at Hollywood’s also iconic Catalina stage, and now Joey has graced our prolific neighborhood musical venue, once again presented by Issacson, in the return of The Return:  his new aptly named Strange Resume Tour 2023.

If anyone is unfamiliar with Joey, his is indeed a strange—yet let’s say hardly vanilla—resume.

Over the years, he has continuously managed to defy categorization. Long acclaimed for channeling the voice and persona of Billie Holiday, he has gone on to establish himself as a world-class entertainer, touring internationally and starring in lavish theatrical productions, including emceeing Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity at New York-New York in Las Vegas as their original Mugler-clad Mistress of Seduction and subsequently touring the globe in his own one-man show created with acclaimed puppeteer Basil Twist called Arias with a Twist.

Still, Joey grew up right here in El Lay and was the youngest-ever member of the famed Groundlings improv troupe, where classmates included Paul Reubens (aka Pee-Wee Herman), Lynne Stewart, George McGrath, and SNL’s Laraine Newman.

At 16, he was signed to Capitol Records with his band Pearly and at 18, he drove across the country in a pickup truck with Kim Hastreiter of PAPER Magazine when the two friends relocated to Manhattan.  Over the succeeding three decades, he has emerged as a New York City legend, distinguishing himself with his uber-scandalous wit, sleek style, and above all, his extraordinary voice.

Joey has performed worldwide at venues that include Carnegie Hall, the Freedom Theatre in London, as well as the cabaret clubs of Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, Germany, Finland, Estonia, Canada, and England. On film, he has appeared in Mondo New York; Big Top Pee Wee; Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; Wigstock—The Movie; Flawless; and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. 

Television credits include the infamous Saturday Night Live episode with David Bowie and Klaus Nomi, Ann Magnuson's Vandemonium for Cinemax, Elvira's MTV Halloween Special, HBO’s Dragtime and Real Sex, and Gayer Than Gay on VH1, along with numerous appearances on a wide variety of talk shows and programs.

Joey’s Strange Resume Tour 2023 again features the noisily innovative avant-garde electric guitarist Brandon Seabrook, once voted Best Guitarist in New York City by Village Voice, who plays like a maniac—and I mean that in a good way.  His pianist Eliot Douglass and Joey have been collaborating 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 with the pianist’s own original composition for Zumanity, “Ooooo, What a Feeling,” one of the most prominent highlights of their set. Together Joey, Douglass, and Seabrook seamlessly conjure pure musical collaborative magic.

Joey once again covers some spectacular standards, including an arresting jazz arrangement of the Beatles’ “It’s a Hard Day’s Night,” Peggy Lee’s “”Why Don’t You Do Right?,” and indelible renditions of a trio of Lady Day classics: “You’ve Changed,” “Why Not Take All of Me” (and indeed he does tell those gathered he loves us and would “bring you all home and fuck every one of you if I could”), and his haunting, almost painfully poignant version of Holiday’s infamous career-destroying “Strange Fruit.”

One thing bringing his Resume to LA is his inclusion of several of his former collaborators, welcoming some of them to join him onstage and venturing out into the house to greet and spar with others.

These most notably included his pal and former costar Ann Magnuson, with whom right at her table he adlibbed a passage from Vandemonium that ended with his game one-time scene partner feigning a faint and dramatically dropping to the floor, and my old friend Bruce Vilanch, who was quick to once again dub me “My Doppelgänger” as he has for many years since we first met 51 years ago when he was writing material for Bette Midler and I booked her first west coast appearance at the Troubadour here and the Boarding House in San Francisco during my days as Talent Coordinator.

Still, perhaps the most heartwarming aspect of Joey’s return was to bring onstage members of his former high school band. Both Maurice Jones and Johnny Romantic delivered their own solo performances, both featuring Joey and the other old friend singing their original backup for their performances.

“I was 15 then,” Joey Arias reminisces from the Catalina stage, “and now look at me.” The transformation might indeed be drastic over the past hummina-hummina years, but then so has been the seasoning and deepening of his remarkable, unearthly talents and his one-of-a-kind signature vocal stylings.

At the end of his appearance last October, 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—and he was immediately met with thunderous applause.

Let’s hope that response signals yet another visit in another five months and, this time, maybe for an entire engagement instead of a quickly sold-out one-night event.

See, Joey Arias’ worshipful admirers simply can’t get enough but, as he admonishes us all from the stage, there are limits to how much he’s willing to give: “Just the tip, motherfuckers… just the tip.”

The Return of Joey Arias 

Photo by Travis Michael Holder

Catalina Jazz Club

25OCT22: 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 www.catalinajazzclub.com

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

The Beatles' LOVE at the Mirage, Las Vegas 

For a critic, keeping an open mind and looking at the familiar with a fresh eye for the unexpected is what it’s all about. The Beatles’ LOVE, the long-running Cirque du Soleil extravaganza that has successfully metamorphosed the Mirage Hotel from being all about overmarketed white tigers into becoming the host one of the most groundbreaking musical collaborations of all time, has recently been “updated”—sometimes a dirty word in Las Vegas.

I returned to see LOVE for the umteenth time with some trepidation, since I have what I’d like to think is a personal history with the show. When it first premiered back in 2006, I was given access to the machinations of creating the show. I was in groupie heaven, able to hang around backstage watching rehearsals and getting to know the artists. I spoke with two amazing “Sirs,” the Beatles’ producer George Martin and, on opening night, Paul McCartney himself.

In awe, I observed the down-to-the-wire refining of Philippe Guillotel’s now-famous period-shouting costuming, then interviewed prop goddess Patricia Ruhl and puppet mastermind Michael Curry (also responsible for the magical creatures in the Cirque’s magnificent KA down the street at the MGM Grand and The Lion King on Broadway). Why, I even got to enjoy a memorable “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” experience with an unearthly beautiful server named Levi I met at the opening night party.

The reworked current version of LOVE is in many ways simplified, which is surprisingly not a bad thing. It now seems less about the spectacle and more about the music and what is evokes in us. For some reason, I heard the gossamer lyrics of John and Paul as clearly this time as if they were onstage reciting their game-changing urban poetry and, oddly, the signature wonders of the Cirque took a respectful backseat for me to what these guys had to say about the world from the perspective of a half-century past. Prophetic, so much of it—and sadly, so little has been heeded or has changed about our fucked-up species since they first introduced their inspirational classic tunes.

Granted, I have been a Beatles fan since my friend brought the White Album over to my house in the fall of 1968 after standing in line overnight waiting for it to be released, an event that stretched from one “enhanced” morning into the next and made me fall deeply in thrall with the Fab Four and their ever-evolving music for the first time as the fireplace in my living room melted onto the floor.

Now, all these years later, watching the wonders of LOVE for the first time, it was like dropping acid again. Close. Really close. For me, however, what it made me recall even stronger was that opening night in the summer of 2006 when it all unfolded before me for the first time. Truly, though 17 years ago, I saw it all so vividly it felt like it had all happened about 18 months ago.

During that week dragging myself through the sweltering Vegas summer, my first glimpse into what would become a legendary production took place in the bowels of the Mirage where Siegfried and Roy once housed their lions and tigers before and after performances. It was complete with ominous scratch marks remaining along the hallway and remnants of the bolts that once fastened their cages in place still visible on the walls, but now acrobats soared to the high ceiling of the room on long vertical ropes while rehearsing for the much-anticipated opening of Cirque’s fifth permanent Vegas attraction.

Unlike those overly trained and obviously unhappy white-striped beasts of yore, helpless to say whether they wanted to be there or not all those years, these newly arrived airborne human artisans had been rehearsing for months—and not just to learn how to soar like Lucy in the Sky. In keeping with the “Here Comes the Sun” number, the performers honored a song written when the Beatles were into their metaphysical-transcendental stage by fiercely researching and diligently studying a mix of yoga techniques and Eastern Indian dance. Whether or not they tried a couple of tabs of Clear Light to understand the mood and atmosphere of that colorful era lost in time, they didn’t say.

Let’s just say commitment among the huge cast, as well as the multitude of backstage artists and technicians pushing the LOVE payroll to about 200, was a given—and obviously still is 17 years later. Bowing at every turn to the Beatles’ groundbreaking sound, the Cirque and MGM International joined forces with Apple Music to stage this still magical mystery tour, miraculously engineering new life into some of the 20th century’s most enduring music—and still keeping it alive and well all these years later.

In the process, they shaped a musical revolution of sorts by bringing together the brilliance of the most imaginative and successful composers of the last century with the most innovative troupe of performance artists working anywhere today, a formula that subsequently did them well with Viva Elvis, which opened the Aria there in 2010, and Michael Jackson ONE, currently playing still at Mandalay Bay. It’s a given that the Cirque reinvented this bizarre town over the past quarter-century since Mystere took the infamous desert oasis by storm in 1993. Wayne Newton has never been the same.

The original opening festivities were overshadowed by the presence of Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, as well as Sir Paul, who answered all questions rather dourly and barely venturing past one syllable, and his only other remaining bandmate, the newly elevated Sir Ringo Starr. Still, the most incredible part of covering the event was meeting and talking to the late-great George Martin, the then-octogenarian producer of all the Beatles’ albums and co-musical director of LOVE with his son Giles.

Working for two years on this project, Sir George admitted that night it was thrilling even for him. Not content with creating a retrospective or tribute show, the Martins insisted instead on bringing to each of the 2,013 audience members the personal experience of being in a small recording studio listening to the music for the first time.

In their sound studio high above the stage, an exact replica of Abbey Road Studios (“So much so we felt like laboratory hamsters whenever we moved something,” he admitted), the Martins practiced their signature sorcery. “Our mission was to try and achieve the same intimacy we get when listening to the master tapes at the studio,” he proudly explained. “The songs sound so alive. A lot of people listen to the Beatles in a conventional way—radio, MP3 player or car, for example—but never in such a space as this.”

Creating a kind of directional panoramic mode in the theatre-in-the-round by embedding two speakers in the back of every seat, the sounds of LOVE engulf and envelope the audience, achieving, as Sir George believed, “a real sense of drama with the music, [making] the audience feel as though they are actually in the room with the band.”

This is made more unique since the master tapes utilized were not designed for a record, not mined from the old classic albums or concert performances, but cut during the boys’ stints in the studio making small promotional films. Often featuring improvised quips as they goofed off and joked casually with one another, the final mix offers, as Sir George reasoned to me with infectious, childlike enthusiasm, “such an immediate sound… not ‘muffly’ like with so many shows in rooms this size.”

And today even more than before, unlike any Cirque du Soleil production before it, LOVE is a spirited and colorful homage of the era in which The Beatles soared—and the designers and creators did everything in their power (and they have a lot of resources from which to draw) to revive that global phenomenon known in my lost youth as Beatlemania. Beginning with real live Nowhere Men shuffling alone onto the stage to reluctantly visit a modest “Nowhere Land,” four scrim-obscured sides of the 360-degree experience soon lift grandly into a brave new world.

Acrobats scale ropes leading from a deep smoking pit around the stage to the riggings high above, twirling around the dismal scene of WWII-torn Liverpool, the exact time when John Lennon was born during the last Blitz. As brick walls burst and four small mop-topped children cower in their beds, the chillingly omniscient voices of the Beatles fill the enormous space to harmonize their glorious a cappella classic tune “Because.” Many of the Beatles’ characters are present onstage, including Eleonor Rigby, Father McKenzie, Sgt. Pepper, Lady Madonna, Mr. Kite, and the Walrus, as the chronology of the Beatles’ music journeys from the early eager goofy enthusiasm, through the drug-enhanced and meditation eras, and on to a spectacular finale of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The 90-minute ride is like nothing anyone has ever seen before, thanks to the creators’ ability to make it all alternately imposing yet surprisingly intimate. Populated not only with typical Cirque aerialists and gymnasts but with street performers, ballet artists, hip-hoppers, tap and break dancers, some originally pulled right off the curb who’d never been onstage show before, there could not be a greater or more devoted homage to the colossal talents of the Beatles than LOVE.

Theatre and set designer Jean Rabesse was given a totally blank blueprint schematic of the former Siegfried and Roy stage and told to do whatever he wanted—a designer’s dream. Like the Martins, Rabesse wanted to go, he told me in 2006, inside the "universe of the 1960s" beginning in the lobby itself, and thought the idea of creating a black box recording studio feeling “was a natural” to put the audience in the studio with the band. A lot of what he created was conjured in computerized 3-D: “Other shows work with models and drawings,” he explained, “but this one had to be seen as a POV from every seat and all angles.” This result, he suggested, is that one needs to come back “four to 10 times to see everything,” bringing a hint of the original three-ring roots of the circus to mind—again, thankfully, without imprisoning and domesticating wild animals.

Augmenting the inspiration of LOVE’s conceptual creator Guy Laliberte, who first conjured the idea for the production while hanging with his bud, the late-great Saint George (Harrison) himself, are incredible video projections fabricated by Francis Laporte, who admitted to me behind the scenes in his own studio that a scant two years ago he never would have had the tools to achieve the heights of visual wonder he did with LOVE. Utilizing mostly unearthed promotional films featuring the Beatles at their most relaxed, his aim was to be as timeless as possible. This is apparent in a spectacular mounting of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as projected letters of the alphabet float down, projected across screens from above. “We wanted the feeling of words falling,” explained Laporte, “like a dream falling apart.”

Asked about the inclusion of four children depicted without faces wearing plastic Beatles mob-headed helmets reminiscent of Devo, director-writer Dominic Champagne’s ability to conjure a personal connection with the bandmembers becomes apparent. “Remember, John Lennon was the most famous man on the planet after Jesus Christ back then,” he explained just before opening night.

The Beatles were back then as puzzled by their own rampant fame as anyone else, making them feel almost invisible within the claustrophobic confines of their own celebrity. This emphasis is also visible in the presence of one lost Chaplin-like Nowhere Man, whose presence is meant to reflect the loss of freedom and personal space Lennon was experiencing when he referred to himself as a ‘nowhere man.’ “You know, for any of us,” said Champagne with a grin, “all we need is love.”

The scariest thing for me sitting among the first people to see LOVE was the audience dotted with ancient gray and white heads reminiscent of a group of subscribers gathered for opening night of some old musical warhorse at La Mirada Civic. My immediate thought, as the walls themselves came alive with the sound of Beatles’ music cranked to full volume, was that the usual Vegas audiences might not appreciate the decibel level.

And not much has changed. Footlong margaritas still in hand and wearing what Rita Rudner once quipped to me where clothes that make her want to go up to them and say, “Excuse me, but what are you thinking?,” the minute the sounds of John, Paul, Ringo and John’s vocals filled the huge auditorium, all those gray and white heads came alive, bopping and weaving like psychedelicized flower children just as we did 50 years ago. Those ancient heads, you see, were my contemporaries, something that made me want to go back to my suite, melt into the pillowtop mattress, and pull the covers over my own rapidly-graying head.

But after partying the night away at that original opening bash, toe-to-toe with the performers and artisans of LOVE break dancing ‘til nearly dawn, I realized back then what a remarkable impact my generation has made on the world in general and the future of music in particular.

As my students used to continually quiz me about my days touring in Hair, booking the Troubadour in its artistic heyday, or working for Jim Morrison and The Doors, their adoration for my era is obvious, not like when we Boomers were kids, listening with moderate curiosity as our parents waxed nostalgic about swinging to Tommy Dorsey or listening to Rosemary Clooney warbling about the cost of doggies in the window.

There was nothing wrong with those simpler days that also bravely paved the way for my generation's own historic musical emergence, but it was nothing like what we accomplished in the late 60s and early 70s before disco strip-mined the experience, bringing with us sounds that laid the groundwork for the unstoppable musical freedom of today.

For all those yung'uns who worship our Boomer-years youth, you should; there was nothing like it for those of us who somehow managed to survive it. And in the last 17 years, there’s still nowhere to absorb that experience better than by heading to the Mirage to let your mind soar and your body groove to the wonder of the Beatles as though discovering them for the first time, reverently recreated and celebrated in LOVE, the best Cirque du Soleil production in their amazing 38-year career revolutionizing entertainment as we once knew it.

PLAYS INDEFINITELY: Mirage Hotel & Casino, 3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas. 702.761.7111 or www.cirquedusoleil.com

 Tournament of Kings at the Excalibur, Las Vegas  

Photo by Travis Michael Holder 

By H.A. Eaglehart, Special  to TicketHoldersLA

Nelson Tsosie is the name of a cowboy forever seared into my memory. We shared many similar attributes, be it as members of the Navajo Tribe, growing up in the same hometown where rodeo was a huge part of our native culture, and we both graduated high school in 2005. Tsosie became the International Indian Finals Rodeo bareback champion that same year and would later become the first Navajo to compete in the PBR.

He rode professional circuit meaning one thing: Las Vegas, staging grounds for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the PBR, the Las Vegas National Horse Show, and Excalibur's Tournament of Kings. Tsosie inspired many including me and during a summer break from college, I competed in amateur circuit rodeo simply to participate with my friends cheering on Tsosie.

I returned to school in the fall but the experience of rodeo forever left me with an appreciation for the smell of a tilled arena, masterful horsemanship, and a fully engaged cheering audience ranging in age from newborns to great grandparents. Thanks to horses, my impression of Las Vegas has always been about good sportsmanship, community, family, and horses, attributes all summing-up one of the longest running Vegas shows, Tournament of Kings at Excalibur.

I have been a family man since before I even had a family. In college, despite sharing a dorm with NYU students the most exciting thing I did outside of class was visit museums and stroll through Central Park. Perhaps this is why today I review live theatre in Los Angeles. I grew up in an inclusive culture where events are meant to allow everyone to participate and have fun.

Anytime I am in Las Vegas it’s always to see the shows, be it Cirque du Soleil, magic, or horses and kings charging at each other armed with exploding-tip lances.

Tournament of Kings is an absolute must-see for anyone vacationing in Sin City and is the reason Las Vegas is an amazing vacation destination for families. I'll never forget descending the stairs behind the flickering arcade lights for the first time and entering the giant coliseum-styled dirt arena with gorgeous stained glass windows overlooking King Arthur's Arena.

The audience is designated cheering sections around the arena for the Kings of Europe competing in the tournament and my partner Travis and I wound up cheering for Austria. It's interesting to note this show has been running since 1990 but early in 2022, a notable change was made in replacing the King of Russia with the King of Romania.

The most important part of any rodeo experience on the Navajo Nation is the food, which is always delicious and usually meant to be eaten by hand—food you can drop when both hands suddenly need to be free for clapping.
Everything about rodeo is meant to be engaging like the Colosseum of ancient Rome and Tournament of Kings is brilliant in capturing all the subtle nuances that absolutely would have been part of any jousting event in medieval Europe. This devotion to authentic detail provides a real-life learning opportunity for yung’uns in love with knights and fire-breathing dragons to step back in time as kids in King Arthur's Court.

Dinner is served by staff dressed as serfs and wenches in costuming on par with Hollywood level brilliance. Wonderful tin platters serve whole Cornish hens, the most amazing sweet potato you'll ever have, corn on the cob, a complimentary Christmas cookie (sadly just during the holidays), and for me Sierra Mist in a fancy mug.

I studied stunt choreography for four years in college, trained mustangs rescued in Nevada for adoption to forever families in Los Angeles, and can say without a doubt Tournament of Kings has some of the best horses and riders in the country.

I tip my hat to all the equestrian performers and wranglers behind the scenes in charge of training horses for this spectacular medieval show which easily would become Buffalo Bill's Wild West show with a different wardrobe. Compliments to the sword and fight choreography and performers exhibiting a show so well rehearsed the delivery appears instantaneous and adventurous to the audience.

The choreography, the dancers, Merlin the Wizard complete with a pointed hat and staff, King Arthur and all his jesters, steal the show by playing the pivotal role of maintaining the crowd's heightened state of excitement allowing horses and kings time to reset.

The production team also needs to be celebrated because the investment in everything from mobile flamethrowers to the rockets flying overhead at the end are an experience seldom witnessed in today's world of HD screens of all sizes.

Tournament of Kings is so much more than a show in the modern sense because, just like at the Navajo Rodeo in my birthplace of Shiprock, NM, the audience truly plays the most important part in the whole show.

I say this as someone with a little experience in being one of the performers out in the tilled arena. There were times I was only able to hang on to hard bucking roughstock because of just how loud the audience was cheering my name. Never have I felt closer to my community and at Tournament of Kings, I could see this same energy feeding the Kings' performances.

It’s easy to see this is a fun show to be lucky enough to play a role. It’s a communal experience families visiting Vegas absolutely must see because at Excalibur, everyone gets to participate in creating lifelong memories.

PLAYS INDEFINITELY: Excalibur Hotel & Casino, 3850 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas. 866.306.0942 or excalibur.mgmresorts.com 

 

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.

Linda Purl and Her Big Band Romance 

Photo by Travis Michael Holder

Catalina Jazz Club

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 www.ensembletheatre.com

For info on upcoming shows from Chris Isaacson Presents, check out facebook.com/ChrisIsaacsonPresents

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

Audio Review:   LATE LAST NIGHT

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 melissa-sullivan.com/music

 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.

CLOSED DUE TO THE PANDEMIC, MARCH 2020

BEACH BLANKET BABYLON, San Francisco 

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.