Saturday, December 3, 2022

Wayne Newton: Up Close & Personal

So before I get into this review, a few disclaimers: 

  1. If you told me a few years ago that I would actually make an effort and spend my own money to see Wayne Newton perform, I would have laughed at you. A lot.
  2. If you told me even a few months ago that I would not only see Wayne Newton perform, but also (spoiler alert!) enjoy it enough that I would recommend that others go see it, I would wonder what you were on. 

     Now, to be fair, I like crooners. But when I say that, I mean that I like the Rat Pack. To me, a pleasant evening is cooking dinner with Sinatra and Martin on the stereo and a glass of bourbon within reach. If I could see any concert ever in history, it would be Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack performing one of the Summit shows in the Copa Room at the Sands while they filmed the original Ocean's 11. But I have never considered myself a Wayne Newton fan.

What brought me to see Wayne Newton recently was what the kids call the FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out. Like it or not, Vegas is synonymous with change, and like it or not, the legacy of Wayne Newton is inextricably woven into Vegas forever. So even if I did not consider myself a fan of Wayne Newton, I had to admit that he was a living Las Vegas legend, and someday (maybe sooner than we would like) the chance to see that legend perform in the flesh might be gone. As a fan of Vegas and a frequent patron of Vegas entertainment, I almost felt what can best be described as an obligation to see Wayne Newton perform.  

"To my left is where we keep the TV."

      If you’ve been living under a proverbial Las Vegas rock and don’t know who Wayne Newton is, he is also known as Mr. Las Vegas, and has been performing on Las Vegas stages and throughout the rest of the world for more that 60 years, beginning in the late 50s at the Fremont Hotel. He’s the guy that tried to woo Helen Griswold away from Clark in Vegas Vacation. When I first started making regular trips to Vegas, Newton was performing at the Cleopatra’s Barge theater at Caesars Palace. When El Dorado took over Caesars Entertainment, they closed several shows and moved Wayne over to Bugsy’s Cabaret at the Flamingo. As shows began to open up post-pandemic, Wayne Newton’s production was delayed; first due to back surgery last year, and again due to a positive COVID diagnosis later on. Since the man is now 80 years old, I was really beginning to feel like I needed to make an effort to see him as soon as possible. 

      As I mentioned before, Wayne Newton, Up Close and Personal is now performing at Bugsy’s Cabernet, which is a small venue located in the center of the Flamingo gaming floor. The venue is also used for X-Burlesque, but you enter the theater through different doors for the different productions, making it seem like they are different venues and that the tuxedo-wearing, living legend isn’t sharing a performance space with a titty show. The size of the theater was a plus for me, because the small room ensured that we could see him well. It truly was “Up Close and Personal.” 

      As we waited in line to get into the theater, we couldn’t help but wonder what we were getting into. We’re in our mid-forties, but we were by far the youngest people in line. Was everyone here for Wayne Newton, or had we accidentally stumbled across the Matlock Fan Convention? Ha ha! Old people… 

      When most of the audience was seated, a woman stood up in front and introduced herself as the hostess. She essentially instructed us to stand up and applaud when Wayne sang his final song of the evening. I’ve seen a lot of shows, but I’ve never been told that I need to give a standing ovation. This irritated me, but it was quickly forgotten. The curtains opened, the 3-piece band began to play, and the man himself stepped out and began to sing. 

      Okay, so I’m just going to cut to the chase here. His voice is not great right now. Don’t get me wrong; he sings better than I do. It’s not awful to hear, but we’re a long way from the gravel mixed with maple syrup sounds he had in the past (for example, in Vegas Vacation). I was actually fine with this, because he’s still an incredible showman. You can tell when you see him live that he has cultivated the art of interacting with the audience. He was pointing at people in the audience he recognized, smiling and waving hello between lines of his songs. This is what I wanted! This is what I paid to see: that old school, still a small town, anyone-can-show-up feeling of old Vegas lounge and dinner shows. At one point, he stops the show to acknowledge his friend in the audience, impressionist Rich Little, who currently performs at the Tropicana. Newton reminisces about their long friendship, and times performing together decades ago at the Frontier. It reminds me of Dean Martin saying hello to Lucille Ball in the crowd at the Copa Room. It’s not the same level of celebrity, but it's the same kind of warmth and familiarity that’s tough to find in live entertainment.  

      The show itself is structured like VH1 Storytellers. Newton sings a song, then tells a story. He plays a video of himself playing an instrument at age 15, then demonstrates that he can still deftly play the same instrument. Fun fact: Wayne Newton can play 13 different instruments, but cannot read music. He plays by sound.  

Wayne Newton: Original Blue Man Group member

      It’s pretty clear that the “questions from the audience” are pre-arranged, and that’s okay. It keeps the show on rails. Newton’s stories include a confrontation with Elvis when it turned out they were dating the same girl, a last-minute recording session with Glen Campbell of the legendary “Wrecking Crew” when they both happened to be in England, a prank played on Dean Martin, and the warmest memories of his friendship with Frank Sinatra. It seemed like Newton regarded Sinatra as not only a great friend, but also a mentor and father figure. I couldn’t help but think of the “you shook Sinatra’s hand” lines from Ocean’s 13. Here, standing in front of me on the stage, was a man who really had “shook Sinatra’s hand.” I began to see Wayne Newton not only as a living Vegas legend, but also as a link to these other Vegas legends that were so important to me and this town that we love. There is also a really cool semi-live duet with a Rat-Pack member that I won’t spoil here. As I said before, I entered the room under a sense of obligation, but I was now absolutely enthralled. 

      Speaking of enthralled, the number of elderly women collectively but only figuratively losing their shit because they were getting to see Wayne Newton was both hilarious and fascinating. If I should end up at a Justin Timberlake concert in my late 70’s, will there be women of my generation going insane and throwing their Depends at him on the stage? We can only hope… I honestly was not mentally prepared for the women who were going nuts because he sang a certain song. Picture all these geriatric groupies, eyes closed and hands waving slowly in the air like members of a mega-church, and this is all because Wayne Newton is singing “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.” 

      Something else I want to mention is the cool montage at the beginning of the show which showed all the Vegas marquees over the years with Wayne Newton’s name on them. Newton began his Vegas career at the age of 15, performing 5 shows a night at the Fremont. He had to leave the property between sets, because as a minor he wasn’t allowed to hang out there. Since then, he has headlined at the Stardust, the Desert Inn, both MGM Grands, the Frontier, the Sands, Caesars Palace, and was even an owner of the original Aladdin. Over the years, he has performed over 30,000 shows in Vegas and released more than 100 albums. 

      I’ve started including the A.F.F., or Audience Fuckery Factor in these reviews. That is where we discuss how much you need to worry about being accidentally included in the show. I think I can safely say that unless you know Wayne Newton personally, or unless you count being asked to take part in a standing ovation, the A.F.F. for Wayne Newton, Up Close and Personal is minimal. He’s not going to Ellen Griswold you, people. 

      To sum up our experience, I still don’t think of myself as a Wayne Newton fan per se, but I definitely have a much greater appreciation and respect for him. He shook Sinatra’s hand, he’s a Las Vegas treasure, and absolutely deserves a standing ovation; no prompting necessary. 

      At the time of this review, Wayne Newton, Up Close and Personal is live at Bugsy’s Cabaret at the Flamingo at 7:00 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Tickets start at $86, and we always appreciate it when you click the referral link here or on the website. 

      You can find Josh on twitter @vegasjaydubs