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It's a skeptics convergence, if you can believe that

January 22, 2006|Richard Abowitz | Special to The Times

"VEGAS is really not known as an intellectual hub," says Teller, of Penn &, speaking up for the Amazing Meeting 4, a convention of skeptics that meets here next weekend at the Stardust. It benefits the debunking magician James Randi's Educational Foundation, and Rio headliners Penn & Teller are big supporters. "It is a particular pleasure to have something whose sole purpose is the intellectual satisfaction of knowing what really is going on in the world."

According to Teller: "The Amazing Meeting 4 is a collection of really, really smart people who get together and learn from each other. The theme, of course, is always seeing through the kinds of illusions that our world is presenting us and combating fakery with fact."

It's not really so odd that a town drenched in superstition and built on an irrational belief in luck would host such a conference -- Las Vegas is the perfect place to warn people not to be suckers, to look askance at things that appear too good to be true. "We are looking at everything from the point of view that we don't believe anything without evidence," Teller says. "That is the key to understanding what all of these people who come to the Randi meeting have in common: They do not want to believe anything on faith alone."

A past winner of the MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, Randi was famous as a magician before dedicating himself to debunking faith healers, astrologers and other purveyors of what he refers to as pseudoscientific claims. Among his books is "An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural." The James Randi Educational Foundation is best known for its still-unclaimed $1-million challenge offered to anyone who can prove he or she has supernatural abilities.

The speakers this year range from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann to comic Julia Sweeney to political commentator Christopher Hitchens. As for how scholars and entertainers approach the issues, Teller says the primary difference is that the professors "have to have a certain amount of dignity about what they do, whereas we can be entirely loose cannons."


The Broadway gamble

SO far the results of the much-ballyhooed Broadway-to-Vegas nexus have been decidedly mixed though some lessons are emerging. "Mamma Mia!" at Mandalay Bay has been the only unqualified success, "Avenue Q" at Wynn is having problems filling seats and London's "We Will Rock You" closed at Paris Las Vegas. So the local entertainment establishment is closely watching the opening of "Hairspray" on Feb. 15 at the Luxor.

One "Hairspray" cast member, Susan Anton, has over the years performed on Broadway and the Las Vegas Strip; she thinks that success here is not automatic but begins with a careful selection of material. "There is so much material that's fantastic on Broadway that is also so suited for Vegas. 'Hairspray' is a show that has an uplifting message and people come to Vegas because they believe they can have something amazing happen. They fit together."

Still, the Broadway experience must adapt to the local terrain. When "Avenue Q" opened last year it was faithful to the original, in every way, even including a 15-minute intermission (something unheard of here). As of last week, though, according to producer Kevin McCollum, the intermission was being removed and the show streamlined making "Avenue Q" now close to 90 minutes.

Anton notes that "Hairspray" has gone that route from the first. "We were smart in our show in that we are condensing it to a 90-minute format. I think the biggest difference between a New York audience and a Las Vegas audience is that in Vegas you are only here for a couple days and you've got so much to see that 90 minutes for a show is the perfect way to go, because people also want to check out a nightclub, go to a fabulous restaurant or see another show."

A 90-minute condensed version is also being planned for the Vegas take on "The Phantom of the Opera," set to open this spring at the Venetian. But Anton notes even if the length is shorter, the ability of Vegas to custom-build theaters for a show allows for elements, special effects and staging that would be impossible to do in a century-old theater on Broadway. "Even if people have seen 'Hairspray,' this production at the Luxor in Vegas is entirely different for that very reason, because we can do so much more. The stage is so much bigger, and the sets have certain elements you just could not do on Broadway."

Executives at Wynn must be taking this in carefully, and not just because of "Avenue Q." Wynn has another Broadway play set for a Vegas debut in 2007, "Spamalot," and is building a theater for it. It is expected that it will be condensed too, but final decisions on the length and intermission have yet to be made.


It's Bucky to the defense

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