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'Jubilee!' at Bally's Las Vegas is a classic glitz blitz

The long-running show (16,000-plus performances since 1981) is the last of its kind.

July 05, 2009|Christopher Smith

LAS VEGAS — On a recent drop-in to Las Vegas I looked around the plane and wondered what the travelers near me were looking forward to most. Success at the tables or slots? A five-star meal? Or just a chance to put aside worries about the economic realities of the last year?

For me, it was "Jubilee!" Never heard of it? That's no surprise, since it's arguably the least hip show on the Strip. On the other hand, there's a chance you may have seen it but just have forgotten about it. Yet, unlikely as it sounds, "Jubilee!" is the longest-running show in any live theater of 1,000 seats or more in the U.S. Performances 16,675 and 16,676 will take place tonight in the dated, usually half-full showroom at Bally's casino. In contrast, the longest-running show on Broadway, "Phantom of the Opera" at the Majestic Theatre, has had a measly 8,900 or so stagings.

With "Jubilee!" being topless at most performances, it's important to note that my interest wasn't motivated by carnal desires . . . after all, there's more skin on display at, say, Cirque du Soleil's "Zumanity" or at the increasing number of sexed-up offerings along the Strip that coincide with the town's almost desperate resumption of its "What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas" motto.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
'Jubilee!': In Arts & Books on July 5, an article about the Las Vegas production of "Jubilee!" at Bally's said Bob Mackie designed the costumes. Pete Menefee co-designed them with Mackie.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 19, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
'Jubilee!' co-designer: An article about the Las Vegas production "Jubilee!" at Bally's on July 5 said Bob Mackie designed the costumes. Pete Menefee co-designed them with Mackie.

No, my yearnings stemmed from a possibly even more indefensible desire: nostalgia. In this case, for a Las Vegas show that defies our current period of diminished expectations. While I'm resigned to businesses drying up in my neighborhood, I wanted, no, required, some of the excess that the old Vegas was all about.

And "Jubilee!" delivered. It is the only remaining example of the signature, waaaaay-over-the-top efforts of director Donn Arden. Arden died 15 years ago and is a somewhat forgotten figure now, but he invented and glamorized the high-concept Las Vegas productions that dominated showrooms from the early 1960s through the late 1980s.

Instead of stories, his shows were bloated spectacles, big for bigness' sake. Nicknamed "The Master of Disaster," Arden harvested history and even the Bible for high-profile source material to re-create in grandiose renderings. On his stages, using what were -- for that time -- state-of-the-art effects, the Hindenburg crash and 1906 San Francisco earthquake became fair game. Amid it all, of course, were troops of showgirls parading by in sparkling, sparse attire, abloom in plumage.

"Jubilee!" opened in 1981 and cost $10 million. By Cirque standards -- Bellagio's "O" cost $100 million to open in 1998, including the price of the theater -- it seems like chump change. But despite budget cuts over the years that have diminished the size of "Jubilee!," the remnants connected me to Arden's vision of what a Vegas show shouldn't and should be: oh so clever and beguiling -- wrong; oversized and in your face -- exactly!

"Jubilee!" has seven acts, four of which are production pieces with up to 80 performers on stage at a time. There are two visual centerpieces that remain largely untouched from Arden's original conception. In "The Sinking of the Titanic," the cast is overdressed in lavish formal wear, dances a lot and then mostly perishes in a big disaster set to music. In "The Destruction of the Temple by Samson," the cast is underdressed in skimpy, cheesy costumes, dances a lot and then mostly perishes in a big disaster set to music.

Range, clearly, was not Arden's forte, and, truth be told, the pacing of these scenes in the contemporary staging was uneven at best, torpid at worst. Online thumbs-down reviews on travel sites invariably include the word "boring" in the subject field with the letter "o" repeated five or six times.

But these sentiments are offset by enthusiasts who, interestingly, tend to be younger, often couples in their 20s and 30s or girlfriends out for an evening. Almost all of these comments speak to the pleasure of experiencing a "classic" Las Vegas show with a top ticket price of $112.50, and correspondents seem wistful at the spectacular costumes and elaborate extravagances, as if all belong to a distant realm they are happy to have visited.

I think that what they've dialed into, what saves the show, is the cast at work and its crisp look. These aren't unearthly, one-dimensional characters up there, a la most of the Cirque shows, but young, appealing entertainers dressed to the nines in showbiz splendor. It's not something you find much of on the Strip anymore.

The nearly 30-year-old Bob Mackie costumes, more than 1,000 of them on display, remain a firestorm of flash. "Bob Mackie tacky" was a dismissive catchphrase in the day when he was outfitting Cher and Joan Collins, but if ever there was a designer destined to dress the right Vegas production, Mackie and "Jubilee!" were -- and remain -- an ideal match.

Ultimately, the uber-glitz is at its best during the show's archetypal finale, a cascade of showgirls levitating on dangerously high heels down flights of steps to half-century-old staples from the American Songbook. They're draped in sequins and rhinestones and, illuminated by more than 100,000 light bulbs, dazzle bounces around the mirrored stage.

The curtain fell on this welter of human shimmer, a reflection of what entertainment in Las Vegas once was, but, for me, apart from "Jubilee!," rarely is. I left feeling lucky to have enjoyed the little bit I had found.

--

calendar@latimes.com

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