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With 'Vegas the Show,' a producer longs for the old days

David Saxe gambles big on an expensive show that examines the city's history.

July 04, 2010|By Richard Abowitz, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Las Vegas — —

Producer, director and venue owner David Saxe agrees with a reality he fully intends to ignore: Despite months of hard work by cast, crew and his other employees, "Vegas the Show" is not ready to open. But open it will the next night at his new theater at the Miracle Mile mall at Planet Hollywood.

Saxe is in good spirits at the dress rehearsal yet also morbidly fascinated by the position in which he has placed himself not only with "Vegas the Show" but by acquiring the theater, his second at the mall. Among other issues, he is now his own competitor. "Nothing about this project makes sense," says Saxe.

A tribute to the history of Vegas entertainment, with stops at the Rat Pack, Elvis and ending with Elton John, "Vegas the Show" is meant to be the anchor production for the theater he acquired this year after the financial collapse of the previous owner.

Saxe plans to run "Vegas the Show" two shows a night, seven nights a week. Over time he hopes to make everything perfect. For now, perfect is not an option. Entire sets have yet to arrive. The dress rehearsal planned as an uninterrupted run-through meant to last less than 90 minutes takes close to four hours. For the next night, Saxe sends someone to buy T-shirts in the mall to improvise an incomplete costume.

Yet for the debut performance, things go far better than the previous evening suggested. Most of the problems are technical, such as the large sets not moving where they should. And Saxe consoles himself by noting that the audience could not have seen many of those issues because of another problem: Much of the stage lighting had yet to be placed.

Still, some audience members are in tears when the premiere "Vegas the Show" ends with footage of the old casinos being taken down by implosion after implosion, while a song by Elton John, a new Vegas headliner, is performed. The nostalgia for this vanished Vegas finds Saxe for once wearing his heart on his sleeve. "This is my 'Jersey Boys,'" he says, referring not only to his Broadway-like ambitions but to the autobiographical ties between old Vegas and his own life.

Saxe, 40, is an anomaly; though a young man, he is a relic of another era. His father was a Vegas band leader and his mother a showgirl turned producer. But despite his old-school cred, Saxe's success came in the new-era Strip entertainment, where shows need to make money rather than be loss leaders. He found his calling pandering shows via formula: novelty acts, comedians, with lots of cheese and plenty of hot showgirls. "I look to the middle market. I make shows that are just fun," he says.

His biggest success has been "V: The Ultimate Variety Show" at the V Theater in the same mall as "Vegas the Show." At any given time, "V" throws at the audience a handful of unconnected novelty acts: puppet masters, ventriloquists, impersonators, magicians or jugglers. Tourists love the gathering of entertainment as a fully satisfying show, and the acts are also cheap to produce. For a decade this has been Saxe's niche.

"Until this show, for Saxe, the content of the show has always been secondary," says Mike Weatherford, an entertainment reporter and critic with the Las Vegas Review-Journal who has covered and reviewed Saxe shows for years. "He knows how to sell tickets and keep costs down." Or, as Saxe's former general manager, Victoria Ribeiro, notes: "With the new show his overhead appears to be enormous. I have no idea how he'll cover his costs."

Saxe could not agree more that it is insanity to do a big-budget show right now in Vegas. Yet "Vegas the Show" is that, with close to 100 people involved between cast, live band and crew. He knows he has abandoned his own low-cost formula, and he can tick off the reasons his new venture is headed for disaster: "There is the economy. And your own theater means it costs $300,000 just to open the door and have lights and keep the ice machines working and that sort of thing. We are not a national brand like Cirque, and we don't have a celebrity."

He estimates he needs sellouts starting in a week of the slightly more than 400 seats in the theater, two shows a night, every night, and then he needs that success to lure more tenant shows to pay him rent, and then, if that goes perfectly, he could break even.

After making the point, Saxe looks at a set reconstruction of the many classic Vegas signs of the resorts he grew up around. Showgirls and dancing men and a gorgeous singer suddenly materialize in the neon graveyard. "But it will work because it has to," he says. "I am all in. Every dollar I have is in this show. And it is a good show."

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