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September 1, 2014

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Why a music production starring CeeLo Green lacks musicians and any human playing a piano

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Erik Kabik/ErikKabik.com

The official opening night of “CeeLo Green Is Loberace” at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, March 2, 2013.

'CeeLo Green Is Loberace' Opening Night

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The official opening night of "CeeLo Green Is Loberace" at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, March 2, 2013.

Click to enlarge photo

The official opening night of "CeeLo Green Is Loberace" at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, March 2, 2013.

It is fairly easy to understand why CeeLo Green would not play an aerial piano in his stage show at Planet Hollywood’s “Peepshow” theater. The rigging required to send a piano high above the stage, accompanied by a piano-playing artist, is not an inexpensive proposition.

If you are looking to maximize what you are spending on a Strip production, “Aerial Piano” would be in the folder marked, “Luxury Items.” So CeeLo is not resurrecting his soaring performance from the 2011 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

But it is far more difficult to fathom why CeeLo is not playing a piano at all in his Vegas production. The show is called “Loberace,” a mix of CeeLo’s own onstage handle and Liberace, who was one of the greatest and most famous piano players of any era. CeeLo, too, knows his way around the piano quite well, whether airborne or grounded. But the only keyboard played onstage in “Loberace” is by an animatronic gorilla wearing a gold lame tux.

If we’re evoking the imagery of Liberace, can’t we roll a Steinway, or some variation thereof, to the stage?

There was also a hint that CeeLo would be backed by a live band during these shows. He hinted at that, pretty directly, in an interview the week before the show, saying, “We’re going to have dancers and live musicians. We’re taking a page out of the old Vegas playbook.”

That page was folded into a paper airplane, apparently, as CeeLo’s contention is only half-right. A lineup of 10 dancers — and they are beautiful, tightly choreographed dancers — populate the stage. But the music is tracked, or canned, whichever term suits. It ain’t live.

These questions bear examination for a show that was highly anticipated and heavily hyped. CeeLo’s appearance with a flaming piano on the Strip (the last time he has been seen with a piano on the Strip, actually) indicated the show would be an over-the-top experience with some really big “wow” moments.

If you expected that type of show — and no one could question why you wouldn’t — CeeLo’s performances are disappointing. He appears in a series of production numbers, wearing costumes that seem hot, uncomfortable and even ill fitting (he walks out in a black-leather suit fitted with what is either a small cape or large wings, and also wears a loosely-conforming suit of sequins that is opened at the neck).

In a moment that has fans still a bit mystified, he brings out a Boy George impressionist in the first 15 minutes of the show, asking the question on everyone’s minds, “What the (heck) does Boy George have to do with anything? Well, I , love Boy George.”

True, a lot of people love Boy George. A lot of people love Cher, too. That’s why we have “Legends” shows, right? The first word about “Loberace” I heard was from someone I consider an expert on entertainment, in Vegas or anywhere else. What was conveyed: No piano playing. No live musicians. Boy George impersonator.

It also doesn’t help forge a party vibe that the show starts at 11 p.m. but is often pushed back to 11:30 or later (11:35 the night I attended) for the changeover from the “Peepshow” set. Waiting in a theater lobby for several minutes is, how you say, boring. You don’t want the crowd walking in yawning when they are about to watch a show that relies heavily on a party atmosphere.

Questions abound. Before making a take on what I witnessed at Planet Hollywood back in the show’s opening week, I asked Larry Mestel, chief executive of CeeLo’s management company, Primary Wave Music, and the executive producer of “Loberace” about some of the decisions that led to the show at Planet Hollywood.

There is no band because, in this show, there is no room for a band. There is space for 10 dancers and a series of set pieces that include a fancy spiral staircase and another set of steps used for an extensive dance scene. “When we got to the point of the schematics of the stage, we had some numbers that had 10 dancers, some eight and some four. When we had the full complement of dancers, we had absolutely no stage room.”

Mestel then asked, “Have you ever been on that stage? It is not as big as it seems.”

As a matter of fact, yes. I’ve stood on the stage a few times, most memorably during a photo shoot about four years ago, in the weeks before Holly Madison took over the lead role in “Peepshow.” At the time, “Peepshow” featured a full band that was set on a riser above the show’s many rotating set pieces. That all-women ensemble was eventually removed from the stage in favor of tracks (a financial, not artistic, decision).

But there is room on the stage for six or eight players, if you really want that. Even the ill-fated “Surf The Musical” found a way to incorporate live music by seating the players beneath the stage. That is not an ideal way to present a band, no, but it was better than trying to put on a musical with piped-in music.

However, as Mestel said, “We could not find a way, short of putting the band in the VIP area (at the front of the stage), to have a band. One of the things we wanted to do, that we that was more important, was have a full stage production and have room for the sets. A six-piece band takes up a ton of space, and we realized this during the Christmas shows (when CeeLo appeared at Planet Hollywood with Rod Stewart, showgirls and a star lineup of Muppets) and we chose the dancers.”

Thus, CeeLo’s show is spiced with his own familiar hits, most notably “Bright Lights Bigger City,” “Fool For You,” "Crazy,” “(Forget) You,” and his take on the song recorded by The Pussycat Dolls, “Don’t Cha.” He writes catchy tunes and also picks his covers cleverly, with INXS’ “Need You Tonight” and Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” But again, absent live music, this is akin to watching superstar karaoke with a bevy of babes helping sell the songs.

The dancers are terrific, the highlight of the show. But why isn’t CeeLo, who rightfully describes himself as a music artist as well as a showman, at least playing a piano during this residency?

“That’s a good question, and we talked about it,” Mestel said. “The way the choreography and show worked out, the numbers fit well back-to-back-to-back and it is a really sexy show. In other iterations of the show, we will include it. It’s a very valid point.”

Particularly when the show embraces Liberace, one of the greatest showmen ever to play the Strip. But his image is to be felt in a general sort of way. It’s a far more implied sense than more something as obvious as, say, rolling out a Liberace impersonator after Boy George is finished.

“I think from CeeLo’s perspective, when he notes the name and image, it’s the flamboyance and over-the-top showmanship he’s bringing back,” Mestel said. “It’s the bright, big wardrobe. That’s the mark of what CeeLo is doing, rather than the literal interpretation.”

Mestel talks of the show being in residency at Planet Hollywood through 2014, that he and hotel officials have had “very, very preliminary conversations” about a longer run. This is a far-off concept, trust me. But already officials have announced CeeLo will return this year after his current set of 28 performances ending April 13 plays out.

The man’s heart is definitely in the right place. He’s famous and gifted and a lot of fun to watch. There is plenty of time to tweak. Hopefully, CeeLo will get back under the lid and tune this instrument, as any great pianist would.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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