So You Don't Have To
Sunday, August 25, 2002
It begins with an astronaut taking one small step down a glittery staircase, "Thus Spake Zarathustra" rattling the banquettes. As the crowd roars, darkness drapes the stage and, faster than you can say "danke schoen," Wayne Newton -- Mr. Las Vegas, the King of Entertainment, the Dorian Gray of the Desert -- materializes out of thin air.
And that's one of the subtler parts of his all-too-frequent show at Vegas's Stardust Casino.
Don't get me wrong. I approve. The crooning, swooning and ballooning melodrama that follows is vintage Vegas, the difference being that the one person who epitomizes Sin City is center stage. Wayne (like Charo, Cher and Chewbacca, no last name is necessary) is an institution, and on a recent trip out West, I finally caught a glimpse of this vanishing breed (loungicus lizardus) in his native habitat.
It was the best 60 bucks I ever spent.
Be assured: I'm not a Wayne groupie. He says during his show that he's had a slew of Top 10 hits, but aside from "Danke Schoen," I can't name one of them. He tells us he's a Native American (thus opening the door to a bunch of "me and my teepee" jokes), which is news to me. He announces that he's just released album No. 158, and I sit mystified, stunned even. 158?
But I've never passed up a chance to see an Icon at Work, so when I had the opportunity to catch Wayne in action, who was I to deny fate?
Several years ago, I should have, when my wife and I bought tickets from a street vendor for Don Ho's show at a Waikiki hotel. You probably know him as the "Tiny Bubbles" guy, but these days he's given himself a promotion: "Hawaii's Living Legend." His glacial 90-minute gig -- in which he sat propped up in a wicker chair telling bad jokes, singing "Bubbles" and shilling souvenirs -- led me to doubt the veracity of that moniker.
No such problem with Wayne, who at 60 still has enormous energy, along with voluminous jet-black hair (hmmmmm . . .) and a wrinkle-free puss (double hmmmmm . . .). After his flashy intro, he vaults onto the stage and launches into "T-R-O-U-B-L-E." At least it's supposed to be. Wayne's voice is in shambles, so at first it sounds as if he's singing "I-Owe-You-a-BLT."
The audience -- perhaps 700 strong and wedged around long tables and into banquettes -- doesn't care. The 50-50 guys-to-dolls ratio is surprising, as is the fact that many of us are pre-AARP. Older gents who only moments earlier were scowling into their watered-down cocktails are now cheering, while their beaming spouses are trying to forget they didn't come alone. A group of women from Texas hoists a sign reading "Wayne Newton or Bust."
Next comes "Suspicious Minds" (Wayne covers a lot of Elvis turf), and it's time to mingle. For the next 10 minutes or so, he clambers up and down the aisles and jumps from table to table, shaking hands and kissing. A lot of kissing. Sometimes it appears that tongue is involved.
Every now and then he comes up for air and mangles another line of the song: "We're caught in a trap, I can't walk out, because I love you too much babeeeeee . . ."
Fortunately, Wayne has the good sense to surround himself with superior musicians and vocalists, and the better sense to use them liberally. The ensemble -- the Greg Macaluso Orchestra and several backup singers -- sits in tiers flanking that magic staircase, allowing him easy access to the instruments he plays (fiddle, piano, banjo, guitar) as well as duet partners. The latter is almost always a mistake; he's so clearly outclassed by his female accomplice on "At This Moment" that's it's painful to watch -- and listen to.