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SPOTLIGHT: 'VIVA LAUGHLIN' : fall television preview

A casino puts on a floor show

Here's a gambling-world drama. With songs. Place your bets.

September 16, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Casino Royale, indeed. James Bond would look like a shrinking violet next to new casino owner Ripley Holden, the hero of CBS' new drama "Viva Laughlin." In one early scene, Holden, played by the ruggedly handsome Lloyd Owen, arrives at the opening of his new venture wearing a killer smile and an even more killer tuxedo.
But chances are you'd never catch Bond singing aloud to Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" as Holden does as he struts around slot machines and blackjack tables. "I'm on my way, I'm makin' it," he croons, twirling gracefully around a cocktail waitress and basking in the come-hither looks from admiring women.

Suddenly a voice yells "Cut," Gabriel is silenced, and the cast and crew of "Viva Laughlin," CBS' tune-flavored drama, prepare for another take. Owen requests a playback in his earpiece as he maneuvers around the set, a glittering desert oasis built inside the shuttered Robinsons-May department store in Beverly Hills. It's another day, another dance for "Viva Laughlin," which CBS hopes will hit a high note with viewers looking for unique, offbeat material. Based on the BBC miniseries "Viva Blackpool," the series, which also stars M├Ądchen Amick, Melanie Griffith and D.B. Woodside, integrates its dramatic elements with hit songs. In addition to "Big Time," characters sing along to Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas," Blondie's "One Way or Another" and Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Let It Ride." The show arrives Oct. 18.

The music appears to have put a jolt of energy into the off-screen proceedings on this day. Out of camera range, soundmen and technicians quietly boogie. Amick, wearing a slinky gown, shimmies.

"We're having a tremendous amount of fun," says executive producer Bob Lowry, who also wrote the pilot. "There are all these great dynamics at play. It's a procedural, a mystery, a casino story, a family drama and, of course, we have fantastic music. So we've got all these balls in the air. It's a real departure, a bold direction and a very exciting ride for the audience."

The team of executive producers includes Hugh Jackman, who will show up from time to time as an arrogant, wealthy rival to Holden. A highlight of the series pilot is Jackman's performance of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," staged as a glitzy production number complete with dancing waitress and blackjack dealers.

The series, which includes Sony Pictures Television and CBS Paramount Network Television among its producers, revolves around Holden, who is obsessed with his dream of opening and running a Laughlin casino. He gets a bit more than he bargained for when the body of his former business partner is found at the club. There are more than a few suspects.

Though music figures prominently in the show, producers want to make it clear that "Viva Laughlin" is not, repeat, not a musical. The characters do not just break into song in midscene, and none of the songs is original. Viewers will always be able to hear the original song.

Says Lowry: "The music allows the action to move forward and always comes from character. The songs are always highly recognizable, so the viewers will recognize music they have a real history with."

Still, the mix is risky. Network dramas with a significant music element have a checkered history. One of the most infamous attempts was the short-lived "Cop Rock," a 1990 series from veteran producer Steven Bochco that included singing cops and crooks. But an episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" with original music and singing and dancing by cast members has gained in popularity since its first airing, and fans have flocked to sold-out singalong screenings in theaters in the past few years.

Also, the staging of musical numbers adds a layer of complication. Owen, a British actor starring in his first American series, must stay on key, sing the right lyrics while listening to the original song through his earpiece, hit his marks, and stay in character. "Doing scenes where music and dancing is involved is not something that can be done quickly and requires a lot of rehearsal," he says. "There's a whole heightened reality to it. But it's really fun, and I'm singing all these great songs."

Amick, a veteran of several series, including "Twin Peaks" and "ER," says she was terrified during her audition -- an argument that ended with the couple singing David Soul's '70s hit, "Don't Give Up On Us."

"I love that this is a show that is not afraid to take chances," she says. "I think it marries these two worlds very well."

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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