For years as Mr. Las Vegas, Wayne Newton has used his legendary name to draw tourists. Newton remains a fantastic host, a talented multi-instrumentalist and a strong storyteller (though his Indian jokes seem to come from another era, in a bad way), with a stage presence that maintains tremendous charisma. But none of that really helps. Because when Wayne Newton opens his mouth to sing, the sound that comes out is dispiriting.
Newton could be a great host of a Vegas variety show, while passing the baton to those who can still perform; many have written as much about earlier Newton shows. But Newton has shrugged off those suggestions, preferring to keep his show focused on his singing and not on his legacy, or his ability to play music, or his personification of the Vegas vacation. The result is sad.
In fact, his latest show at the Tropicana, Once Before I Go, moves in the opposite direction of variety. There are no guests, and, outside of Newton and his musicians, there is virtually no show-business on Newton’s stage—not even showgirls. The reviews of his new show have been brutal, from blogs to newspapers. They have been for over a decade. One can only guess why he continues to subject audiences to a show so unworthy of his legacy. This is the great enigma of Wayne Newton in 2009.
- Wayne Newton’s Once Before I Go
- Tuesday-Saturday, 8:30 p.m., $80-$150.
- Tropicana, 739-2222.
Newton won’t admit there is a problem with his voice, but he is aware of the reviews and has been known to take them personally, as when he blasted an unnamed critic (rather easily identified as the Review-Journal’s Mike Weatherford) in a 2007 Las Vegas Life profile. Even now, some in Newton’s camp still refer to Newton’s feud with Weatherford. But if there is bad blood, it seems to be, largely, a one-sided feud. “I think it is a kill-the-messenger thing,” Weatherford says.
If anything, being familiar with Newton’s vocal issues can make one generous—if the voice is less surprising, you can notice the little things that do work for Newton, like his stories of old Vegas, Elvis and the Rat Pack. Still, the Las Vegas Sun’s Joe Brown, who admits he was tipped off about Newton’s voice before seeing the performer for the first time at last month’s media premiere of Once Before I Go, was clearly shocked by what he heard:
“Newton can barely speak, let alone sing. … He has planned his own memorial service—and dang it, he’s going to enjoy it while he’s still with us. But why would anyone want to be remembered like this?”
As a music critic, Brown is right. But I think he is wrong in some other respects. I do not think Newton could possibly “enjoy” this work, even if he says otherwise. That he can convincingly give the impression that he is enjoying himself onstage is part of what makes him such an iconic entertainer. But there is no way he can feel good looking into the shocked faces of people he has asked to spend $80, $100 and $150 for what he is offering as a show.
I also think Brown is off in assuming the title is truly meant to announce Newton’s retirement. When I tried to pin Newton down on retirement, he would only allow that this would be the only time he would do this particular show. In the same interview he insisted his vocal problems were a thing of the past.
But nothing has changed. Newton, 67, opens Once Before I Go with a skit. A young boy playing a teenage Wayne Newton meekly nods as he’s told he’ll do six shows a night, six nights a week. It’s the only time Newton is not onstage, and the only implied explanation offered for the vocal performance that follows: He must have worn out his voice in those early years. Of course, that can’t be all true; Tony Bennett is older than Newton and still sounds great.
In the end, Once Before I Go isn’t that different from other recent Newton shows—it has many of the same songs and same jokes to go with the same ruined voice. Only the winning personality, the stories, the charisma and the legend are left onstage. That should be enough. Audiences bring tremendous goodwill to a Wayne Newton show in Las Vegas, and there is still plenty for audiences to love. But by focusing on keeping his vocals in the spotlight, Newton requires blind devotion these days. How odd that such a beloved entertainer seems to have forgotten the most basic lesson of show business: Pleasing audiences comes first.