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October 23, 2014

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How do you stage Vegas?

Songwriter is confident he’s got the topic that will make a hit musical: Poker

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Sam Morris

Tim Molyneux recalls getting the idea for his musical while playing poker in Laughlin at a table where two men were arguing over whose hand was better. “I’m like, wait a minute, there’s a song right there! That’s a song,” he says.

IF YOU GO

What: Showcase of songs from “All In: The Poker Musical”

When: 7:30 p.m. July 3-5

Where: The Rio

Tickets: $29.95 and $49.95; 777-7776, www.pokermusical.com

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  • "Slow Roll" from "All In: The Poker Musical."
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  • "Sometimes Nuthin's All You Need"
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  • "I'm Not a Gambler, I'm a Poker Player"
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In Today's Sun

Las Vegas has never really had a show to call its own.

The Strip’s showbiz landscape has been studded with star vehicles, Cirque spectacles and big-name musicals, mostly imports and tours. We haven’t seen a true Las Vegas musical — that is, a musical about Vegas, created in Vegas by Vegas artists and performers.

Tim Molyneux thinks he’s got it. It’s called “All In: The Poker Musical,” and he’s previewing it in a cast staging at the Rio during the World Series of Poker. After that he’s setting his sights on a Broadway production, an international tour, a reality show. T-shirts.

He seems to have a pretty good hand: Poker is hotter than it’s ever been. It’s available around the clock on TV as a spectator sport, with celebrity players and amateurs who become sudden superstars. More than 60 million people are registered with online poker sites.

His investors include Phil Hellmuth, 11-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner — who is also a character in the show.

And Alabama-born Molyneux, 38, is an experienced song and dance guy: He created “Bite” — a classic rock musical about sexy vampires — which marks its fourth anniversary at the Stratosphere in August. And he has been writing songs and shows for international audiences on cruise ships and in theme parks.

Now he just has to play those cards right. Soon we’ll see what he’s holding.

• • •

Molyneux accidentally found his ideal subject four years ago, while in Laughlin pitching a show.

“I went down to the casino area and saw these older gentlemen playing what I saw on TV — I assumed it was Texas hold ’em,” he recalls. “I sat down and said, ‘How much does it cost to play?’ They said you have to pay at least $20. I said, ‘OK, I’ll go $30, is that OK?’ Well, about two hours later, I turned that $30 into over $1,400. I was like, ‘I think I’m addicted to this.’ ”

Four years later, “after reading about 20, 30, 40 poker books and playing 30 or 40 hours a week,” the idea for a musical hit him.

“I was playing at a full round,” says Molyneux, sitting behind the custom-made black felt poker table in the poker room of his Vegas house. “And there was these two guys, I don’t know if they knew each other or not, but they argued about everything. Every hand, whether they were in the hand or not, arguing and yelling at each other and causing a ruckus. And they really were aggravating everyone at the table. There was this gorgeous, classy, sophisticated woman, dressed real sexy, sitting across from them. The argument kept going on and on, and finally they were both in a hand and they were like, ‘I know my pair is bigger,’ ‘No, my pair is bigger.’ And she leaned over and said very quietly, ‘I don’t care who’s bigger. I got you all beat. I know my pair is bigger than yours.’

“I’m like, wait a minute, there’s a song right there! That’s a song. So that became ‘My Pair Is Bigger Than Yours.’ ”

The songs kept coming: “I’m Gonna Bad Beat You Boy.” “She Did a Slow Roll Over Me.” “I’ve Got a Full House and I’m Paired Next to You.” “I’m Not a Gambler, I’m a Poker Player.”

Molyneux started writing in January, working at the piano in his home, setting the words in pop, rock, country, swing and blues settings. Songs in hand, he shuffled the deck and came up with a story line. The premise: “You’re at the final table of the World Series of Poker, and we’re seeing the history behind each one of the characters.

“I started realizing that not only is poker for the masses, but you can always find the same kind of people playing,” he says. “Somebody comes to the table, in five minutes, suddenly you know who they are. There’s always the bully kind of guy who likes to push people around the table, the compulsive personality that has to win everything, the soft, quiet person who ‘reads’ the table ... I’m thinking, wow, this is the microcosm of America. Right here at this one table you have a taste of about everything.”

• • •

For the showcase performances at the World Series of Poker, Molyneux has lined up some ringer singers, including Jimmy Lockett (“Big River,” “Cats”), Reva Rice (“Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “Spamalot”) and Brandon Nix (“We Will Rock You”). And while he’s waiting to showcase his songs for paying audiences next week, Molyneux has been puzzling over the question that’s been on the minds of the casino moguls lately: What plays in Vegas? And what exactly is a Vegas-style musical?

“Why is it that Tony Award-winning, $300 million-grossing Broadway shows come here and shut down in six months?” Molyneux says. “Why is that? And then, why is it that the one anomaly, ‘Mamma Mia!’ has done so well?”

“Most producers try to force the Broadway model into the Vegas marketplace, and you can’t do that. It doesn’t translate. I think at the end of the day there is a formula, and there is a structure to what a Las Vegas visitor or audience member wants to see,” he says. “I’ve got it broken down to a science.”

Number one: You can’t have too much dialogue.

Two: The songs need to tell the story. “ ‘Mamma Mia!’ is a prime example. You hear one song, you know exactly what that character is thinking. You can leave at any time, go get a drink, go gamble, come back in and you still know what’s going on. You can’t do that with shows like ‘Phantom’ or ‘The Producers.’ ”

Three: “There really is a time limit for audience attention. You have to keep it 90 minutes or less, 80 minutes is probably best.”

Four: “The goal is that each song could be heard on the radio. Not musical theater. Each song I wrote thinking I could turn on the radio right now and I could hear that song.”

And a successful Vegas show has got to have a lot of sex, Molyneux adds. “In a classy way.”

Come to think of it, a poker musical begs for a sequel: “Strip Poker,” anyone?

• • •

However it plays out for Molyneux at next week’s showdown, you probably won’t be seeing a rash of musicals based on other casino games. Craps, for instance, or the slots, just doesn’t have the romance and resonance. If he wins, he’s got the potential buy-in of a massive built-in audience.

“Poker is for anyone,” he says. “If you’re 21 years old, you can come play it. Poker is the only sport in the world where you can watch the champion today, and tomorrow fly to Vegas and play against him. You can’t do that with Tiger Woods or anybody else.”

The odds may be in his favor.

Molyneux isn’t bluffing here — he “eats, drinks, sleeps” his musical and he talks about it with the confidence and passion of a man with a live hand. He shows off the “dream board” in his office, a white board colorfully covered with such goals as “Win a Tony Award” and “Make one billion dollars.”

“I’m not saying I’m the only person who can write a Vegas musical,” Molyneux says. “I’m just saying that maybe the code has been cracked. I think Vegas deserves its own style. You have to embrace what Vegas is for. It’s a chance: Anybody can win, anybody can lose, if you want it, you can have it here.”

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