The second you get off the plane in Las Vegas, you hear that famous ca-chingthe sound that means some desperate person is parting with his money in a compulsive way that allows there to be a Las Vegas. Yes, there are coin machines in the airport, which prevents you from having to wait until you get all the way to the hotel to work the slots! In fact, there's more ca-ching-ingand more everythingthan ever in the new Vegas, which has been so pumped up that it's easily the most soulless place on earth and also the most flashily irresistible.
Celeb mania is such a religion here that as you board the moving runway to the baggage claim, you hear a taped Cher impersonator saying, "Do you believe in life after love? Then be careful as you step off the walkway." You pass billboards for magicians you've never heard of and singers you haven't heard of in ages, plus Siegfried and Roy (even the tiger in their ad looks airbrushed) and the Blue Man Group, which has successfully made the trip from Off-Broadway to the desert and is now the performing equal of Wayne Newton. You quickly learn the local rules: There are no clocks in the casinos, so you'll forget yourself and never go back to your room. There are no mini-bars in the room, so in case you do go there, you'll have to race right back to the casino for a cocktail. And you can handily get from one casino to another thanks to a tram that allows the major hotels to suck some bang out of each other's bucks.
The casinos themselves are jaw-droppingly, hideously gorgeous, and all themed to a tee. The Aladdin has a giant lamp, winged horses, and clerks in jodhpurs. At Caesars Palace, a gigantic uncut penis turns out to be part of their reproduction of Michelangelo's David (classical works are everywhere, but in lowbrow copies enjoyed by people who think art is a former Jeopardy! host). The Venetian is basically an imitation of Caesars' imitation, but with a chlorinated canal on which you can ride a pseudo-gondola (a tourist-trap re-creation of a tourist-trap re-creation). And the Bellagio has a fine-art exhibit which craftily enough exits into the souvenir shop.
But the Paris is the most kookily grandiose landmark of all. It's a lavish Les Miz-y expanse with a sky ceiling and a French village facsimile that's dead-on perfect, except for the Keno board over the town square. Past Le Reception and Le Bell Clerk is Le Village Buffetthe most glorious assortment of food in town, much snazzier than the one at the MGM Grand (though that joint does generously provide a lion habitat and an Elvis impersonator in the lobby). The Paris's crowning glory is its 540-foot version of the Eiffel Tower, and after riding up le elevatormuch smoother than the real one, by the wayI heard a tourist murmur, "Now we don't have to go to France!" Thoughtfully enough, they take your picture on the way up for you to purchase on the way down. And the elevator girl even fills you in on the neighboring attractions. ("The Treasure Island pirate show goes on every 90 minutes, the volcano at the Mirage erupts every 15 minutes, and the water show at the Bellagio happens every half-hour.") She forgot to mention the skating display outside the fake Statue of Liberty in front of New York New York, which re-creates Gotham in the very Disney-style fashionreplete with odorless sewer exhaustthat has now been adopted by our city itself in a bizarre case of reality imitating kitsch.
Just as that casino provides Central Park without the muggers, the Luxor gives you Egypt without the terrorists, and is fronted by a spectacular sphinx the size of my heinie. I stayed at the splashy Mandalay Bay (comp), along with the parrots in the lobby and the various sea creatures in the Shark Reef. Flapping my fins around the hotel, I found Aureole, a chichi restaurant where the wine bottles are piled up in a see-through tower that an attendant has to be sent up a rope to get to. (Even fine dining in Vegas is a circus stunt!) The place, along with the V Bar at the Venetian, represents the town's new attempt at upscale nightlife, which is making a dent despitenot because ofthe fake Studio 54 at the MGM Grand.
All the world's glitz and talent came together at that hotel for The Billboard Music Awards, which were as zingy and fun as a music awards show should beChristina Aguilera and Pink tying for best hairdo. And the same gigunda piece of real estate houses EFX, the magical, mystical spectacle starring Tommy Tune, who presents it as his dream come true, though I suspect he'd rather be back on Broadway. It's all mind-bogglingly lavish enough, as narrated by a disembodied filmed head of James Earl Jones ("I am the events master . . . "), even if the showbizzy middle section brazenly nods to Cirque du Soleil, Stomp, Riverdance, and Tune's own work. Among the weirder moments, Tune talks to his younger replica ("It's all right, little Tommy. You're just having a bad dream") and, in an audience Q&A that looked a little fake, cracked to a woman claiming to know him, "You might be one of my ex-wives." This from the man who once wrote me, "I've always been out of the closet." Oh, wellca-ching!
Back in New York, New Yorkthe real onethere are our own glitzy tourist attractions to roll around in, like the new edition of Forbidden Broadway, which is acid-tinged and mordant but somehow loving, and I loved it right back. A spoof unto itself, Jane Eyrewritten and directed, I swear, by the guy who codirected Siegfried and Roy's Vegas showis a torture, from its wobbly beginning ("My name is Jane Eyre, gentle audience") to its shoddy lyrics ("All my pulses are racing, I cannot sleep/A precipice is daring me to leap"). It's all handsomely designed but so uninspired that I jumped the precipice at intermission before Jane could err any more.
Billy Connolly's show at the Westbeth was a little too cute and self-consciously kinetic for my taste, though the audience was rollingand he laughs at his jokes too. In Oscar-derby land, All the Pretty Horses has a more measured tone, which Billy Bob Thornton explained at the premiere by saying he was in "one of the loudest movies ever made" and wanted this one to be dramatically different. Naturally, he meant Armageddon, which was even more ear-piercing than the sex flings he has with Angelina Jolie about every five minutes.
At the Glammy Awards for drag excellence, the crowd orgasmed over Edie's intricately choreographed holiday production number, which out-Vegased Vegas and made those Gap commercials look like a dinner-theater dry run. They also got moist for the Backdoor Boys, four heartthrobby drag kings who played with each other's prosthetic penises as they sweetly crooned "I Want It That Way."
Meanwhile, the Bush family might not want it this way, but Family First is the South Park guys' upcoming Comedy Central sitcom based on the presidential family. Interestingly, I've learned that the twin daughters of the show's prez will practice a rather extreme form of sisterly "love." Vulgar? Yeah, but so is Vegas, and I'm going back there soon.
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