Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 | 2 a.m.
As Frank Gatson Jr. watches a performance of “Jubilee!,” he rests his chin in his hand. He squints, gazes around the spacious showroom and frequently blurts out questions.
Such as, “Why are they wearing those pants?”
Or, “Why isn’t the audience standing up, cheering? They just performed the hell out of that number.”
Or even, “Why are we losing track of Samson in this scene?”
They are all relevant questions about the Strip’s longest-running, and last remaining, traditional showgirls-driven production, but Gatson is hardly an idle fan. “Jubilee!” is undergoing a significant modernization beginning this week. Gatson is the new show’s creative director and choreographer and has been recruited to upgrade the show without compromising the vision of original producer Donn Arden.
“I want to be diplomatic and tell the cast I know exactly what it is like to be in their positions,” Gatson says Tuesday night during a performance of “Jubilee!” at Bally’s. “The show needs to be reinvigorated, and I have to find the balance between bringing it up to date without losing the vision that Donn Arden had in the first place.”
The stated reason for the timing and need for the upgrades to a show that opened at the old MGM Grand in 1981 are multifold. The show’s audience is not getting any younger, though officials say ticket counts are not the driving force behind the decision to modify the production (Asian tour groups in particular help boost audience numbers).
There is money now set aside for the type of revisions, and the type of person revising, required to update “Jubilee!” Caesars Entertainment is looking to make all of its performances more vibrant and energetic, nodding (hopefully) to the nightclub crowd that is largely ignoring such classic productions.
“This needs to be a party,” Gatson says. “This show has to be the place where young people go to feel that Old Vegas vibe. It has to be a cool thing to do. That is why I am here.”
To allow for the time required to make significant changes, to the performance and the show’s audio and visual presentation, the show will go dark early next year. In the offing is an announcement that Veronic DiCaire will be extended through mid-January, and, after her run concludes, the theater will close for a few weeks (likely) while “Jubilee!” is revived.
“Modernizing” the show while maintaining its classic vibe is a delicate dance, but Gatson is an expert at performing nimble footwork, onstage and offstage. He has been a choreographer, image-maker and confidant of Beyonce since her days in Destiny’s Child and helped design the reunited group’s smash appearance at this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show.
Gatson also once danced on tour with Up With People (an ideal training ground when addressing the boundless scope of “Jubilee!”) and in a 30-year career has helped choreograph and direct videos and appearances by Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, Diana Ross, Vanessa Williams, En Vogue, Usher, Mariah Carey and the Band Perry.
Gatson arrived in Las Vegas this week, flying in from Paris after working with Beyonce on her current world tour. But he’s been stealthily watching “Jubilee!” performances over the past several weeks and has seen the show nine times as he’s evaluated where and how to tweak the production.
“Every time I see it, I see something different,” he says. “It’s important for me to see it repeatedly, and with different people, to check my opinions.”
“Jubilee!” has not undergone a makeover of any significance in about 20 years. In that span, the audio/visual/performance wizardry of Cirque du Soleil and such extensive and advanced productions as “Jersey Boys” at Paris Las Vegas have wowed audiences on the Strip. The charm of “Jubilee!,” of course, is that it is of its time.
The show is unbending in its presentation, with topless beauties striding across the stage in astonishingly appointed costumes designed by Bob Mackie and Pete Menefee. The Titanic and Samson and Delilah scenes are so famously familiar that hardly anyone inside the production has questioned why, for example, there are mannequins in the lifeboat or why Samson might not wear a longer and more dramatic wig.
“When I see the show, I see so much production value. I mean, are you kidding? Look at that staircase,” Gatson says. “You have light blue chiffon costumes. Tuxes. These costumes are a producer’s dream.”
Gatson has been onboard for only about two months and had not met the cast until Wednesday night. Even during Tuesday’s show, nobody onstage realized that the person seated in a booth near the lip of the stage would be so vital to the show’s future. During the performance, Gatson stresses that all of his thoughts are preliminary and conveyed offhandedly.
“I am just thinking out loud,” he says.
But know that Gatson has authority to make cast changes. He loves tall showgirls, and the show’s requirement that all women onstage stand 5-feet-8-inches tall does not seem in jeopardy. But, repeatedly, he says of the guys, “We need bodies up there that are not the women to look nice. This needs to be a sexier show, and some of the guys need to get back into the gym. When you’re young, there’s no excuse to be onstage and not be fit. I want to see six-packs up there, and I’m not seeing them.”
As enamored as Gatson is with the women’s costumes, he finds the men’s attire lacking in several scenes. The sparkled black T-shirts, matching slacks and white belts worn by the male dancers are not a favorite.
“This does not appeal to women in the audience,” he says. “They do not look good.”
The order of the scenes might well be juggled to add a more chronological sense of time. The Samson scene is near the middle, Titanic at the end, and there seems no connective thematic thread to the show. The specialty acts, or side acts, too, are under review.
As he watched the male body balancers and the cube act, he wondered, “Why is this act in the show right now? It is taking us out of ‘Jubilee!,’ and we’re going to need to reintroduce the show after this act. … I’d like to see how we can integrate these acts into the story more effectively. I don’t understand why they are being used when Cirque has become so effective at using these types of acts. They’re very common now.”
Mostly, Gatson is seeking more power from the stage. Moments designed to achieve high drama have become unintentionally kitschy. The culmination of the Samson scene is of the lead male dancer destroying a temple as he is crushed under a big demon head with its eyes flaming red. The capsizing of the Titanic employs ample pyrotechnics and smoke effects, but each of those scenes are tepidly received, greeted only by a smattering of applause.
“We should be on our feet,” Gatson says, grabbing the booth’s table with both hands. “This should be shaking. We should be feeling the power from the stage, and we’re not. They are giving us everything, and we’re feeling an absence of power.”
The revamping will start with a pep talk to the cast and a look at supercharging the sound system. Gatson talks of bringing in Vintage Vegas-style singers and using hologram figures and additional video to boost the dance scenes. Some of the costumes will inevitably be ditched or upgraded.
But Gatson is not turning “Jubilee!” into a different show. He is making the classic show more dynamic.
“I’m here to improve the presentation,” he says. “But there is no other show like this. I’m old school, and I really believe that.”