Published Friday, Oct. 9, 2009 | 10:33 a.m.
Updated Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009 | 1:43 a.m.
The stage version of “America’s Got Talent Live!” at Planet Hollywood has that barn-dance feel, and who among us does not love a barn dance?
But take a closer look at the in-fact production quality of the barn dance, and you see some splinters in that form of entertainment. You root for the performers, but, in many cases, they don’t measure up to experienced pros. Sometimes you have trouble hearing them sing, play and tell jokes. Sometimes the lighting in that barn is too darn dim.
“AGT,” as it is called, has begun a 10-week run at the “Peepshow” theater in Planet Hollywood. The live production is hosted by Jerry Springer. It is filled with the best contestants from the popular contest show that recently finished its fourth season on NBC as the summer’s highest-rated primetime program in the country. For a Vegas reference point, this is the show that vaulted an obscure singing impressionist/ventriloquist named Terry Fator to Strip stardom.
There is no Terry Fator in this crew.
After watching Thursday night’s media/VIP performance, it’s obvious how Fator dusted the field during his run -- Fator is blessed with remarkable talent and has been honing his act in front of audiences for decades. He is more the exception than the rule in this production, and for evidence consider the most recent champion and million-dollar winner, Kevin Skinner. Skinner is a wholly likable singer/songwriter from a town called Paducah, Ky. His ultra-humble, aw-shucks personality seems not at all contrived, and he is a rock-solid man you can’t help but root for. But live, in concert, he’s not a great singer. At least, he’s not the type of singer and musician who makes you think, “This guy should have his own show at The Mirage!” His voice flattens out as he sings the Garth Brooks hit “If Tomorrow Never Comes” accompanied by his own acoustic guitar. It didn’t help that the audio crackled and faded on Skinner, a problem that cropped up intermittently through the evening. Nor did it help that as Skinner took to an electric guitar, produced by Springer, for “Sweet Home Alabama,” it sure seemed as if the music supposedly emanating from that instrument was “tracked.” The guitar notes actually started before Skinner’s hands began moving. Again, a fine guy who doesn’t mind unwinding with a post-show smoke at the bar, but … a million dollars? A Vegas Strip production? In a city that has shows dropping left and right and can’t even support Charo? Skinner says he’s blessed, and brother is he right about that.
Set onstage to boost the show’s production value are three video panels, and the famous judges from the show -- Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne and David Hasselhoff -- are present only via recorded segments introducing the acts. “Kevin Skinner is the real deal,” says the Hoff. Certainly, some of the acts were at the very least fascinating. Young contortionist/breakdancer Hario Torres is the type of uniquely effective act that you’d see on “The Ed Sullivan Show” generations ago. He seems to be an example of where an entertainer ascends after graduating from “Freaks”-level productions. The drum crew Recycled Percussion, which seems to have pulled most of its instruments from the Cheyenne Transfer Station, remind of a paint-less Blue Man Group. Seventy-five-year-old comic Grandma Lee is adorable, sharp and naughty. She joked of a conversation with her college-aged daughter, who told her, “Momma, I ain’t a virgin anymore.” Grandma Lee’s response, “I slapped her and said, ‘I’m spending all this money sending you to college, and you still say, ‘ain’t!?’ ” Also, “I’m at the age where I sneeze, fart and pee at the same time!” She’s so cute.
The best vocalist (and probably best story) of the bunch is cancer survivor Barbara Padilla, a fine opera singer who somehow finished second to Skinner for the million-dollar first prize last season. Also in the lineup are the Texas Tenors, who resemble Starsky & Hutch and the late Eddie Rabbitt and sound a lot like the Las Vegas Tenors without the range; the acrobatic Acrodunk crew that uses mini-tramps to throw down an array of explosive slam dunks (this is an entertainment form that dates at least to the Bud Lite Daredevils from 25 years ago; expect them to perform at a Runnin’ Rebel game next season); and Nuttin’ But Stringz, a hip-hop violin-playing duo that leaves their bows shredded after each performance. There might be yet another forum for violins out there, but Nuttin’ But Stringz appears to be the last stop for violin experimentation.
As noted, this lineup would have a better chance to impress if not for the many production kinks. Lighting was iffy and missed the mark. Audio faded in and out. The lackluster effects were a surprise to those used to the precision of “Peepshow” in that same theater.
The night’s ringleader, of course, is Springer, and he was not at the top of his game last night. Maybe it was a rugged schedule that had him performing his own circus-like syndicated talk show in Connecticut before flying out to Vegas, but he seemed lethargic while delivering material that requires a crisp delivery. An example of his torn-from-the-headlines material, after Acrodunk’s performance: “I haven’t seen a guy score so much since David Letterman.” But the show should not hinge solely on Springer. It’s not “Jerry’s Got Talent.” Planet Hollywood should hope pure variety and the personal appeal of the lucky performers carries the day. Or, in this case, 10 whole weeks.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.