Vegas! The Show producer David Saxe sometimes refers to the time he was onstage with Folies Bergere at the Tropicana.
That was in 1969.
It’s true. At that time, Saxe was a once non-listed (and volunteer) member of the cast. His mother, Bonnie, was a Follies showgirl who danced for a time while pregnant with David.
So Saxe is the rare Las Vegan whose is actually a “pre-native” to the city’s entertainment scene. (I’ve searched and searched but sadly cannot find any reviews of Saxe’s embryonic performance with the famed adult revue.)
Saxe was born to do what he does, no doubt. There’s more to the Saxe lore, too, a yarn which itself would make a fine storyline for a set-in-Vegas musical: His father, Richard, was a bandleader who provided backing musicians, or “relief bands,” for productions and headliners throughout the city, including The Rat Pack, Lido de Paris at Stardust and Folies.
That’s where Saxe’s parents met, actually, at the Trop, while both were puttin’ on the show.
“When everyone else was growing up watching sports, I was watching old MGM movies with all the dancing,” Saxe recalled during the episode of Kats With the Dish that aired Friday on KUNV 91.5-FM (you can conveniently link to the show from this column).
At the time most young men were dreaming of quarterbacking football teams, Saxe was at the helm of his sister’s magic show. For 16 years, Saxe was the producer of Melinda: First Lady of Magic. He was just 17 when he began working on the show at Bourbon Street.
So dutiful a showman was Saxe that he even took his date for the Clark High School senior prom to the show on the night of the big dance.
“I was working the lights and sound,” Saxe said, chuckling at the memory. “She sat in the booth with me, and between shows (Melinda performed twice a night), we went and got our pictures taken. She left me. I guess I was not romantic enough.”
But for Saxe, romanticizing classic Vegas entertainment is second nature. As he says, “I think I have an eye for the audience’s point-of-view for these shows. I’ve been going to them my whole life. I’ve seen all the shows, Sinatra, everybody, since I was a kid.
“That’s why I wanted to be a producer, because I’d see so many things go wrong and think, ‘Don’t they understand that when you put together a show, you should create it from the audience’s point-of-view?’ ”
The result of that sensibility is Saxe’s Vegas! The Show, which celebrates its first anniversary Thursday night at Saxe Theater at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood. The all-hands-on-deck production is a sample platter of the stars and production numbers the city made famous.
Classically costumed showgirls saunter down a tall staircase. The cast reprises the finer moments of Elvis, The Rat Pack, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Gladys Knight, Tom Jones, Sonny & Cher, Tina Turner, Lena Horne and even Elton John. Sir Elton is dropped into the show in large part so the number “Rocket Man” can serve a soundtrack to a videomontage of Strip hotel-casino implosions to bookend the vintage Vegas experience. The show begins with grinning custodian Ernie (played by original cast member Eric Jordan Young) at The Neon Boneyard, and closes in the dust of all that historic destruction.
One year on and Saxe has managed to keep alive a show that needs to fill almost every seat in a 420-capacity theater 14 times a week. It’s an against-all-odds effort, considering the cast is 40 members strong. There is no canned music. A live band directed by pianist Pat Caddick and guitarist Jerry Lopez makes sure of that. All the voices are live, too.
There have been changes. The little Liberace puppet operated by magician Joseph Gabriel has been vanquished (Gabriel is great in handling Mini-Lee, but the little dude sort of creeped me out). Gabriel still works with the trained macaw parrot that has, on at least one occasion, swooped into the crowd and landed on the head of an audience member (that would be talent agent Colleen Custer, in last year’s gala opening).
A tribute to Wayne Newton, cast member Lou Gazzara singing “Danke Shoen,” is back in the show. The great talent that opened the production, including vocalists Reva Rice, Trina Johnson-Finn, Joelle Righetti-Jenson, Gabriel Burrafato and David Villella, remains. So does dancer Tara Palsha, now featured in a more prominent role as a principal dancer, to the objections of, well, no one.
Saxe, appearing on the radio segment with show director and choreographer Tiger Martina, reiterated his devotion to the Vegas shows of his youth. And, again, he fired on the city’s dominant entertainment vehicle, Cirque du Soleil.
“Not to criticize Cirque,” Saxe said, ensuring a criticism of Cirque was in the immediate offing, “but a lot of my problems with Cirque shows is they don’t connect with audiences as well as they should. They are technically amazing, but they don’t have that connection, and that’s why I wanted to do ‘Vegas! The Show,’ to bring entertainers back.”
Saxe has seen all of Cirque’s shows in Vegas and says he has not been emotionally moved by any.
“I fell asleep at Ka, I swear to God,” he said. “I was making fun of the guy behind me who fell asleep, and I was telling my wife, ‘I can’t believe this guy! He’s snoring! Listen to him!’ I’m laughing, and it must have been 10 minutes later ,and she pokes me and goes, ‘You’re snoring!’ ”
Saxe has even been brazen enough to spoof Cirque in TV ads inspired by Apple’s Mac-vs.-PC campaign (with Saxe’s operation the hipper Mac, of course).
Cirque, to its credit, took the high road. Or, if you will, the high platform.
“I tried to prod them a little (for a response),” Saxe said, laughing. “But they are too big. They are too smart.”