Friday, Jan. 18, 2013 | 6 p.m.
Motown is at once a vibe, a state of mind, a record label and a synonym for R&B music. If Motown had a mayor, he would not have been an actual politician. He would have been Berry Gordy.
When they were kids, the brothers and friends who formed the vocal group Human Nature thought Motown was just that: A record label or type of music, to be classified alongside rock 'n' roll, big band, classical and the like.
"We thought Motown was just another word for soul, I suppose," says Andrew Tierney, founding member of Human Nature. "We didn't know that Motown was a town. I'm sure that a lot of Americans had that problem, too, and it was a crazy thing for us to find out."
Crazy enough to dance to.
As a result, Tierney, his brother Michael, Toby Allen and Phil Burton have added a historical, almost documentary-style twist to the updated version of their Motown tribute opening tonight at Sands Showroom in the Venetian. They talk of the early days of Motown and Hitsville USA, the company's original house and headquarters. They reach back to show what Motown looked like in its 1960s heyday, unearthing footage of the man who has complicitly endorsed their Las Vegas stage show, Smokey Robinson.
The guys sing "Tears of a Clown" with the video image. They have sung many times with Robinson onstage and in the recording studio, and it was their a capella rendition of "The Tracks of My Tears" that sealed Robinson's endorsement of the act that debuted in Vegas in 2009.
When the guys showed up at Imperial Palace, now the Quad, the initial sense of their harmonious and tightly choreographed act was that they represented the Australian "Jersey Boys," but instead of singing Four Seasons songs, they embraced Motown. Even today, it's easy to imagine the quartet assuming the four roles in the Paris Las Vegas production, but the group quickly developed a singular identity.
"We are an act that is also a show," Andrew Tierney says. "So we needed to keep creatively satisfied. Moving to the Venetian allowed us to do that."
About 30 percent of the show will be updated material. The band is the same seven-piece crew that backed the guys at Imperial Palace, but the musicians will be drawn into the show more definitively at the Venetian. The absence of any musician will be more difficult to fill, and, as always, a sickness or injury to any member of Human Nature itself means the show won't go on.
"We are rare that way," Tierney says. "When one of us is out, we're out."
Human Nature spent three years at Imperial Palace and did well enough to have the showroom renamed Human Nature Theater. But construction disruptions and the end of their contract with Caesars Entertainment coincided to provide an opening to move into a more contemporary venue originally designed for impressionist Gordie Brown.
That space has been given a new, open, light- and LED-splashed look by accomplished set designer Andy Walmsley. The effort brushed up against the $1 million mark, a worthwhile outlay for an act seeking a stage, if not image, makeover.
The collective consequence for all this work is Human Nature and its Las Vegas producer, SPI Entertainment founder Adam Steck, are operating at a higher plane. The show was scooting along in fair order in its original showroom (where the vibe was not only Motown, but actual vibrations from the floor from the thundering dance steps). Even so, everyone in the production wanted to see how it would play in a more refined haunt.
"When people come to Vegas, they expect bigger and better," Steck says. "This is up five notches from the previous venue, and we're also appealing to a higher socio-economic customer." Ticket prices are $73.45, $95.45 and $117.45 for a VIP package. That's $20 per ticket higher than the original show.
Steck asks himself a question.
"Did we love the old showroom? Absolutely," he says. "We loved the old booths, the old-school feel of the place. But we wanted to grow the show, to evolve and get better. Creatively, I think everyone had hit a peak."
In essence, this move has been something of a Motown renovation project. And the right guys are holding the plans.