Inside the Theater
By John Katsilometes, entertainment reporter with the Las Vegas Review-Journal
In the weeks leading to the opening of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in March 2012, executive Paul Beard led a tour of the under-construction facility.
We arrived in the Cabaret Jazz room, and Beard waved his arm toward the space where the stage would stand. “We will have national touring acts in this room,” he said, “and we will also book the best Las Vegas artists.”
Beard mentioned that the Composers Showcase of Las Vegas, a night of original music by the city’s assortment of wonderful performers, would be held each month at Cabaret Jazz.
Cabaret Jazz has indeed become the premier live-entertainment destination for those who ply their craft in Las Vegas. That night is the cornerstone of a boundless, endless series of terrific Vegas performances at Cabaret Jazz.
Some of my personal highlights:
Clint Holmes, who opened the venue, performing as a monthly headliner for four years and focusing on a different star for each show, soaring with “Hallelujah.”
Lon Bronson’s All-Star Band, the first full Las Vegas band to headline the room, breaking out a full David Bowie tribute to honor the late rock legend. That night, Lannie Counts charged up the room with “Young American.”
Frankie Moreno’s entire run in the room, where he has rarely played the same song in consecutive shows with a different theme each week. Moreno has conceived such inventive moments as moving the stage to the middle of the room for an acoustic set, and producing beach balls during country night (a notorious, never-to-be-repeated event). Musically, his tribute shows to Ray Charles, Elvis, The Beatles, even a Mozart night with a full orchestra, have been some of the most fulfilling Cabaret Jazz performances.
Niki Scalera, from “Tarzan” and “Hairspray” on Broadway with her flawless tribute to Shirley Bassey.
Michelle Johnson’s thoughtful, soulful tribute, “Tapestry,” honoring Carole King.
Rising vocal star Daniel Emmet, backed by piano virtuoso Philip Fortenberry.
The showcase by vintage-Vegas rockers Reckless in Vegas, led by Michael Shapiro, powering through a rollicking update of “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.”
Elisa Fiorillo, for years a backing singer for Prince and The New Power Generation, fronting the Bruce Harper Big Band (and wearing a purple dress from her days touring with Prince).
Reva Rice, who arrived in Vegas in “Starlight Express” and is a star in “Vegas! The Show” in her autobiographical production. “Song Bird” was the title, and Rice is that, sampling from Gershwin, “Smokey Joe’s Café,” and “The Color Purple,” among others.
Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns, a Vegas institution since the mid-1970s, never less than brilliant. Bravo to Tony Davich’s “You Don’t Know Me,” and the band’s ripping medley of Earth, Wind & Fire hits, led by vocalist Tyriq Johnson – whose EWF “Serpentine Fire” show has also played the room.
Melody Sweets of “Absinthe,” bringing burlesque to the room with her solo shows, backed by Bronson and featuring striptease numbers by Kalani Kokonuts and Roxi D’Lite, an onstage “Dating Game” segment (the winner of which was yours truly) and twin tappers Sean and John Scott.
Travis Cloer, late of “Jersey Boys,” with his holiday shows, joined by Kristen Hertzenberg of “Phantom – The Las Vegas Spectacular” and backed by a 1960s-fashioned showband with “TC” scripted on the bandstand.
The Ronnie Foster Trio, led by the renowned Hammond organ virtuoso who performed on Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” and toured with George Benson.
And, of course, the monthly Composers Showcase, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2016. Co-founder Keith Thompson (music director of “Jersey Boys” during its Las Vegas run) continues to front the show. In April’s performance, 13 composers were featured, the night closing with Foster closing the show. His band included Santa Fe founder Jerry Lopez, fellow guitar great John Wedemeyer, Cuban vocalist Noybel Gorgoy, bass master David Inamine and Foster’s kids Chris (on drums), Kaylie (joining Gorygoy on vocals) and keyboardist Jamie Hosmer. It was inspired, international, familial and very Vegas. Same can be said for Cabaret Jazz.