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Catch the rising stars

Some of the Strip’s Broadway performers offer unique entertainment for locals

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Erich Bergen mentors future stars.
Photo: Steve Friess

Erich Bergen has one of those clean-cut young faces that make you want to pinch his cheeks and mess up his hair. He’s all wide-set doe eyes and perfect manners and collared shirts, albeit in various stages of wrinkled, and there’s this straitlaced, innocent element that makes the kid a natural to portray the square who wrote “Sherry” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.”

That’s why I’m a little startled when I sit in the empty showroom at the Liberace Museum during a rehearsal last week for Bergen’s two-nights-only benefit concert and the stuff that’s streaming out of his mouth is naughtiness and double entendres of the most delightfully vile manner.

I won’t give it away, exactly, because Bergen asked me not to, but the Jersey Boys star himself is wondering if what he’s just sung will “make everyone walk right out, it’s so disgusting.”

God, I hope not. If they did, they’d miss an up-close-and-personal opportunity—at a bargain-basement price!—to spend some time with a talent so impressive, so refreshing that he can’t possibly be long for the obscurity of a Las Vegas Strip musical cast.

Star power is something that’s very difficult to explain or describe, and it is not that Bergen is the best singer, the best dancer, the best actor or the best-looking performer in this city. But what Bergen does have is a youthful and affable presence, an ability to play with audience expectations of him, a willingness to take risks and a confidence that does not—at least yet—come across as arrogance. And he has an eagerness to perform and crowd-please this city ought to appreciate and take advantage of for however long we have him here.

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Erich Bergen Live at the Liberace
March 25 and April 8, 7 p.m., $15
Liberace Museum, 1775 East Tropicana Avenue
798-5595
Jersey Boys
Thur. - Tues., times vary
$62-$200
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Consider for a moment the fact that Bergen is even doing these two headlining shows on March 25 and April 8. He doesn’t have to. He’s the lead of a major production, makes good money. His time off could be spent resting the desert-damaged vocal chords and shuttling to Los Angeles or New York for auditions. And certainly, Bergen does some of that.

But the 23-year-old, who grew up in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and has been performing since he was a tween in TV commercials and the like, decided he wanted to give something back to a local arts and music scene that rescued him from a dark chapter. After his arrival last year when Jersey Boys debuted, Bergen fell into a funk brought on by a harsh breakup, the death of a castmate and, of course, finding himself profoundly lonely in Las Vegas. “I’m not going to lie, I was definitely freaked out a little bit,” he says of his first months here. “I was definitely thrown off.”

It didn’t take him too long, though, to discover the Composers Showcase, a monthly concert series at the Liberace Museum organized by Keith Thompson, musical director for The Producers, Hairspray and now Jersey Boys in Vegas. Dozens of fellow Strip performers, mostly from Broadway productions, sing or play their original songs; the public pays a piddling $5. (See TheComposersShowcase.com for schedule.)

Bergen became a regular and soon decided he wanted to do a benefit of his own. Sure, it’s nice to raise money for the Liberace Foundation, which provides scholarships to music students, but he also saw it as a chance to do something unscripted and daring. In his normal gig, of course, there’s no room for improvisation. In Erich Bergen Live at the Liberace Cabaret, he gets to bust away from “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and dive into his own songs, as well as a jazz-arranged medley of “Like A Virgin,” “Billie Jean” and other modern pop standards.

“This concert is an attempt to have some fun onstage that isn’t guided by what can and can’t be said,” Bergen says. “The comedy is spur-of-the-moment; nothing that I say is planned. The music is the music I am passionate about.”

Erich Bergen - from YouTube.com

There is a reason I’m writing about this on this particular week. It isn’t just that I expect great things from Bergen and feel a kinship to him because just a couple of years ago he was a lowly podcaster with a Broadway-themed celebrity-interview show called Green Room Radio that is still available on iTunes. (And don’t worry, I’ve no intention of setting down my The Strip mic to have a go at ventriloquism any time soon.)

No, I write about this because it occurs to me that many are wringing their hands over what a lousy arts town Las Vegas is now that, as of this month, Southern Nevada became the largest metropolitan area in the nation to not offer a real public, nonprofit art museum.

That sucks, to be sure, but we do have arts here of a different sort. Almost no other American city can boast singers and actors of world-class caliber living here and seeking out other avenues to entertain us beyond their normal jobs. Several of those who appear in Strip musicals go on to remarkable stardom, the most significant example being ex-Phantom star Sierra Boggess, recently opened on Broadway as Ariel in The Little Mermaid. We get these kids in formative periods of their careers, before they’re too big and important and wealthy to be bothered to play in a small local joint for free.

Indeed, it won’t be but a few years before Erich Bergen is a serious threat on Broadway, in the movies or on TV. Get over to the Liberace Museum on March 25 or April 8 at 7 p.m., then. It’ll cost you $15, and later on you can say you knew him when. You’re welcome.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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