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From Wayne Newton, Talent and Subtlety Worthy of Las Vegas

August 19, 1996|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CERRITOS — It seemed only fitting that the introductory music to Wayne Newton's concert Friday night was Richard Strauss' "'Also Sprach Zarathustra," a.k.a. the over-inflated theme to "'2001: A Space Odyssey."

The two-hour show, the first of three Newton was scheduled to give over the weekend at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, possessed all the slick grandeur and flash one would expect from a showman who wears his reputation as "Mr. Las Vegas" proudly. Like the city that made him its biggest star, Newton aims not only to please, but also to dazzle and overwhelm.

The 54-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist is far more an entertainer than an artist. There's a reason only two of his more than 100 albums ever cracked Billboard's Top 40 during a lengthy show business career that began when he was a child.

Most limiting is his singing voice, which ranges from moderately moving to technically thin and emotionally monochromatic.

Newton had the good sense and the resources to put together an accomplished 18-piece orchestra. These crack musicians managed to give the show's mostly well-worn songs a full-bodied, if overstated, strength.

Indeed, Newton occasionally had trouble standing toe-to-toe with his mighty orchestra when it swelled melodramatically on such power ballads as "The Impossible Dream" and Neil Diamond's "'September Morn'."

But the youthful-looking Newton is a wily and energetic performer. He knew exactly how to win his audience, which consisted largely of fans well into middle and old age.

During one busy stretch, he showed off his prowess on pedal steel guitar, acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and trumpet. Often he opted for lickety-split runs rather than subtler instrumental passages. To a fellow musician, this may have come across as hollow grandstanding, but to this crowd of die-hards, it was all part of the jaw-dropping fun.

Versatility, or at least the perception of versatility, was a key element of Newton's show. The concert included classic ballads, country, gospel, rock and Latin pop. Yet most of his songs, regardless of style, were stripped of their earthiest qualities.

Like Pat Boone, Newton has the ability to make everything from a Hank Williams' weeper ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") to a Jerry Lee Lewis barn burner ("Great Balls of Fire") palatable for audiences who might not care for the intensity of the original versions.

Moreover, Newton is a great communicator. He worked the lip of the stage masterfully. He kissed elderly women and chatted easily with the audience as if he were relating to a roomful of loved ones.

He generously dedicated songs to friends and special fans in attendance. Newton also knew just how far he could take his corny and occasionally off-color humor. Claiming he could remember things that happened to him before he was born, he recalled going to a picnic with his father and coming home with his mother. Affectionate groans and chuckles drifted from the crowd.

He works hard to project an aura of sincerity, yet the more Newton claimed that certain songs were being spontaneously dusted off specifically for this special audience, the more it appeared that they were actually well-rehearsed numbers.

Nevertheless, it's not difficult to understand why his fans want to believe in his almost heroic persona. Newton not only works hard as a singer and musician, but he works hard to come across as a self-effacing and humorous, yet charismatic and gifted patriot and family man.

Perhaps, as the quintessential Vegas entertainer, he needs to be judged solely by his own over-the-top performance standards.

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