Published Saturday, March 10, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Updated Saturday, March 10, 2012 | 1:44 p.m.
Smith Center opening
Half a billion dollars can pay for a lot. It can cover the finest in architectural planning and execution, the sturdiest construction materials and the most dazzling design effects.
It can finance a 17-story carillon bell tower, fund a lobby carved in Italian marble and pay for a lushly landscaped outdoor amphitheater.
But it cannot buy word of mouth. That is something we supply, and the “we” in this instance are the Las Vegas residents for whom the Smith Center for the Performing Arts was envisioned and built.
The $470 million arts-and-entertainment fortress celebrates its gala opening tonight with a variety show supported by a list of performers that reads like a Time Life Music Super Set: Jennifer Hudson, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Martina McBride, Emmylou Harris, Carole King, Mavis Staples, trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval, violin great Joshua Bell and Train vocalist Pat Monahan.
But wait — there’s more!
American Ballet Theater dancers Marcello Gomes and Luciana Paris are scheduled to appear. Broadway is represented by Brian Stokes Mitchell (“Kiss Me Kate,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Ragtime”), Laura Osnes (“Grease,” “South Pacific” “Anything Goes”), Cheyenne Jackson (“Finian’s Rainbow,” “All Shook UP,” and TV’s “Glee” and “30 Rock”), Sherie Rene Scott (“Aida, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Little Mermaid,” “Women on the Verge”), Montego Glover (“Memphis,” “The Color Purple”) and Benjamin Walker (“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Inherit The Wind”).
Helming the show will be Neil Patrick Harris, a performer with such appeal and multidimensional skills that it is a shame he is not headlining his own permanent show in Vegas.
That collection of stars, and the range it represents, could populate a series of performances at the Smith Center. But that is just a single night, to christen the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall, a moment to be recorded for a not-yet-determined TV special produced by Emmy Award-winning producer George Stevens, of “Kennedy Center Honors” fame, and his son, Michael.
But what happens when those stars disperse, and the instruments and cameras are packed and hauled away? Those who have not yet had the chance to experience either the majestic Reynolds Hall or the cozily hip Cabaret Jazz club are already asking for the skinny on the Smith Center venues.
As in: What is in it for us?
For this night crawler, that conversation starts at Cabaret Jazz. If the Smith Center’s venues can be likened to a band, Cabaret Jazz is the rhythm section. It keeps the beat. The organically crafted opinion of what the Smith Center offers and what it represents will blossom from this venue, and it has already started with two VIP performances by Linda Eder on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
Clint Holmes begins his yearlong residency at Cabaret Jazz on April 7. Dinner will be served at all performances in this two-level, 258-seat club, and Holmes plans on varying his performances. He is preparing a dual tribute to Paul Simon and Cole Porter, which he is taking to Feinstein’s at Lowe’s Regency in New York along with his well-received tribute to Bobby Short, which drew critical praise during its run at Café Carlyle in New York in October.
Beyond the performances of Holmes, a terrific vocalist who Smith Center President Myron Martin calls one of the great singers of his generation, is the credibility the veteran entertainer carries to the stage. Holmes was a friend of Sammy Davis Jr., who also happened to be Holmes’ performing idol. Holmes, too, is the rare Las Vegas-based performer to wow The New York Times, which applauded his Bobby Short tribute show. He has performed at all variety of Las Vegas venues, including the lounge at Stirling Club at Turnberry Place, Artemus Ham Hall and the showroom at Harrah’s, where he headlined for five years through 2006.
Thus, Holmes knows the arts-and-entertainment scene in Las Vegas. He also knows a lot about quality of venues, in and out of the city, and when he says Cabaret Jazz “is as beautiful as any theater I’ve been in,” you listen. Holmes is also friendly with a wide array of performers, from lounge musicians to members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic. He plans to invite the best vocalists and players in the city to join him in his weekend performances, and he hopes to fold in a regular “gypsy” show, a midnight performance on Saturdays staged exclusively for local entertainers.
That effort will swing the doors open to the Smith Center to the very people whose opinions carry weight in Las Vegas — the artists. The Composers Showcase, similarly brimming with performers from across the city, is moving into Cabaret Jazz for its monthly (or so) performances. For nearly six years, the showcase has drawn cast members from the best Vegas production shows to such off-Strip venues as the since-closed Suede Restaurant (in the same complex as Double Down Saloon), Liberace Museum, Creative Studios, and Garfield’s Restaurant in Summerlin. The allure has been that guests — many of them the entertainers themselves — can be treated to top-level performances of artists performing original numbers at a cost of … about nothing. The cover has for years been $10; seating has been open.
At Smith Center, that figure has been doubled. Seating is assigned. Some of the informal vibe that made Composers Showcase popular will dissipate, no doubt, and the series is starting on a month-to-month basis.
If the Composers Showcase can take hold at Smith Center, and becomes “a cool hang,” to use Holmes’ term, guests will be more likely to buy tickets to book other performances at Cabaret Jazz or at Reynolds Hall. That nod to locals, too, will help mitigate complaints from Las Vegas-area performing groups unhappy that nearly all of the entertainment (aside from Holmes and the Showcase) at Smith Center is imported.
It hasn’t helped that one of the venues in the original plans, a 300-500-seat theater that would have been ideal for local arts groups, was erased in favor of the Discovery Children’s Museum. Smith Center officials, with the blessing of chief benefactor the Reynolds Foundation, didn’t feel it made good business sense to built a midsize venue because, they reasoned, the city is teeming with such.
The great appeal for locals at Reynolds Hall — aside from its breathtaking, multitiered design and peerless acoustics — is its “Broadway Las Vegas” series. Martin has been an unbending proponent of Broadway shows in Vegas — he was co-producer of the short-lived Vegas version of “Hairspray” at Luxor. But as that show’s short run (just six weeks) helped reinforce, Broadway-styled productions have not always been an easy sell in Vegas. Martin says the strong ticket sales (more than 10,500 season subscribers) of the “Broadway Las Vegas Series,” which includes “The Color Purple,” “Memphis” “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Mary Poppins,” and “Wicked,” was evidence that the city is ready to support shows and reverse a trend that saw “Avenue Q” and “Spamalot,” (both at Wynn Las Vegas) and “Hairspray” sink in Las Vegas.
Las Vegans will note that the Smith Center has drawn quite a few artists who typically performed at the UNLV Performing Arts Center. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, and tap-dance artist Savion Glover are all former headliners at Ham Hall. Sax master Branford Marsalis is another popular former Ham Hall performer moving to the Smith Center.
The price of cultural advancement will likely be felt, even in small measure, at UNLV. But for those who live in Vegas, it could be a small price to pay.