By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
What recession? The tri-state casinos are turning it out, taking a big gamble, as it were, in a pumped-up attempt to bring in even more high rollers with big hair and frisky hands. It might just click. As the economy tumbles, middle-class people become even more desperate to work the machines (and catch an American Idol star in concert) in hopes of a miracle.
In this fight-to-the-death environment, the MGM Grand just opened adjacent to Foxwoods in Connecticut and sent us to revel in the comforting excess awarded to drive-by VIPs. On opening night, bars were situated every 10 feet, waitresses stalked you with hors d'oeuvres trays, and other staffers were so bent on making sure you were fulfilled that one even escorted me through the entire casino and up two escalators to the press room—and he didn't want a tip!
The big meal was a "dine-around experience," which meant you had a choice of four restaurants on the premises, from Asian fusion to steak to Northern Italian to Junior's. We chose them all. At one of them, a woman in a motorized wheelchair ran me over so ferociously there are still indentation marks on my feet. But the crafty bitch lost that gamble; I still beat her to the buffet!
For dessert, we were treated to an all-star concert at the casino's MGM Grand Theater, where hosts Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones emitted a double-Oscar glow. "It's a great-looking group out there," Douglas oozed onstage, clearly not spotting my indented slippers. Inevitably, he turned to the wife and added: "You're not doing too bad yourself!" She beamed like a well-fed cat. "Catherine's been away shooting a film," Douglas explained to the crowd. "This is the first time I've seen her in a while." What a touching reunion—on the stage of a casino opening!
They were quickly replaced by 14-Grammy-winning producer David Foster, who brought out his star parade, starting with John Mayer's bashful troubadour routine, with flashes, I swear, of Marvin Gaye. "I love you, John!" yelled a fan. "I love you, full name withheld!" he cutely responded. (But of course Mayer really loves Jennifer Aniston, and I have to support that even if the tabloids feel it's driving a stake—probably with stake sauce—through poor Jessica Simpson's heart.)
Next up was Josh Groban—the male Celine Dion, with flashes, I swear, of Will Ferrell—who was cheese on a cracker, with those agonized facial expressions and earnest greeting-card sentiments. Cirque du Soleil should be prancing around him at all times. Truth be told, Groban's voice has developed a little more body and his Williamsburg styling is an improvement, but I surely could have lived without his musical tribute to Nelson Mandela, backed by a testifying chorus of black people.
For the finale, Alicia Keys served some real soul, but quickly seemed to sense that these black-tied throngs weren't quite her crowd. They probably would have preferred Gloria Estefan! Still, she got through her short set professionally, without resorting to that old "Come on, let me hear some noise!" routine, and no doubt cashed a very nice check before calling room service.
And there was more. At Sean "Diddy" Combs's after-party in the grand ballroom, there were Cirque du Soleil performers flouncing around, plus writhing dancers in a Hollywood Squares–like set and two acrobats doing handstands on each other's heads. I danced with full name withheld.
By the next morning, the ritualized excess had become a way of life for all of us. At a Quincy Jones–hosted brunch, a headdressed Native American woman was onstage urging, "Let us confess our wrongdoings and receive the forgiveness of God!" as I frantically stuffed my pockets with dried fruit. Honey, it's a recession, remember?
They brought out yet more piles of food for the following week's Harrah's trip to Atlantic City, where the troughs of turkey tetrazzini helped blind me to the fact that while I normally run like a wild man from the New Jersey throngs, I'd traveled four hours to spend a whole weekend with them. But it was a seamlessly star-studded trip, starting with a poolside party where host Carmen Electra graciously posed with fawners. ("She's pretty" was the most profound statement overheard about her). Inside the hotel the next evening, Deborah Gibson performed—live—and told the crowd: "Whether you're a child of the '80s or you're in your eighties, we're gonna shake it up tonight!" With her customary spunk, Deb romped on Broadway numbers ("Hey, Big Spender") and her hits ("Shake Your Love"), also throwing in some personal observations about how "all of us former teen idols do have meltdowns. I just chose to have mine in private." (Of course, while Britney's was about losing her kids, her hair, and maybe even her life, Deb's was about not knowing if her voice could safely go back and forth between pop and Broadway!)
That night at Caesar's Circus Maximus, Jerry Seinfeld was slickly funny, making meltdown expressions as he went gaga over the absurdity of the iPhone, Cialis, and the fact that Hillary just won't quit. ("She's got 28 new pantsuit colors left.") Over at Showboat's House of Blues, the goddess Patti Labelle was wearing every color of the rainbow as a gaggle of ageless divas sprung a surprise birthday bash on her, lining up to sing the lady's praises as we all made some noise. Natalie Cole—she's pretty—crooned "Unforgettable" to Patti (the first time I've seen her sing that to a live person); pint-sized Stephanie Mills wailed a few petite bars of "Happy Birthday" on command; and Sarah Dash, from the original Labelle group, belted out some amens that seemed extra deeply felt since that glitzy trio had just reunited to work on a comeback album.