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October 24, 2014

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REVIEW:

Wayne Newton: The story, but not the sound

The only thing fans will enjoy about this show is the memories it evokes

Image

Leila Navidi

Wayne Newton performs as a photo of him as a young man flashes on the screen during the opening night performance Wednesday of “Once Before I Go” at the Tropicana. The show traces Netwon’s career and has him singing duets with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, who appear on video screens.

Wayne Newton - Once Before I Go

Wayne Newton appears on the red carpet during the grand opening night of Wayne Newton's Launch slideshow »

If You Go

  • What: Wayne Newton: “Once Before I Go”
  • When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
  • Where: Tropicana
  • Admission: $79.99, $99.99 and $149; 739-2417, troplv.com
  • Running time: 90 minutes
  • Audience advisory: Newton memorabilia on display in gift shop, which offers combination ruler/letter-opener for $2

I had been warned that Wayne Newton can’t sing anymore. Apparently it’s been common knowledge for years that his voice is shot.

But nothing could have prepared me for the ghastly noises that came out of the Las Vegas icon Wednesday night. Newton can barely speak, let alone sing.

It sounded like the Vegas Chainsaw Massacre.

“Once Before I Go,” Newton’s uneven new show at the Tropicana, purports to be a stroll with Newton through 50 years of memories as an entertainer on the Strip.

But that somewhat maudlin, foreshadowing title indicates what Newton is really up to here: He has planned and staged his own memorial service — and dang it, he’s going to enjoy it while he’s still with us.

But why would anyone want to be remembered like this?

The show begins promisingly enough: A bus pulls up on stage, and out pops a baby-faced 15-year-old with a guitar and a suitcase. A manager type tells the newbie he’s going to play six shows a day, six days a week for five years. The kid walks through a showroom stage door — which then opens to reveal Wayne Newton, circa 2009, nearly obscured by clouds of stage fog.

After demolishing “Viva Las Vegas,” Newton speaks.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Bono,” he says, a cute allusion to the U2 singer introducing himself as “Wayne Newton” at last weekend’s Sam Boyd Stadium concert.

Then it’s time for some Viagra jokes. (Really. Complete with rimshots from the drummer.)

Newton tells us he’s going to recollect memories of his half-century in showbiz. And he does, but in the most confoundingly random way.

Assuming (erroneously) that everyone is up to date on the Newtonian mythos, he meanders through his past, answering questions fans have posted on his “SpaceFace,” reminding us of how many benefits and USO performances he’s done, and showing photos of his chipmunk-cheeked younger self in Vegas get-ups of yore.

A jumbo video screen is wheeled onstage, and Newton sings a duet with the late Sammy Davis Jr.; later, he pulls up a chair and chuckles through a vintage video of a duet with Dean Martin, who hilariously takes drags off his cigarette between lines.

This is all entertaining enough, but then Newton grabs the wheel and gives it a hard yank to the far right — suddenly we’re in Branson, Mo. Flags are rippling on the screens. Newton tells us what a great guy Ronald Reagan was, then urges all the veterans in the audience to stand for a round of applause. He swaps his tuxedo jacket for a camouflage outfit, straps on a guitar and, atop a flatbed truck, gives a taste of one of those USO shows.

There’s a sort of desperate, delusional “Sunset Boulevard” quality to this vanity project. At times it feels like we’ve all been cornered by ol’ Uncle Wayne and forced to watch home movies and the History Channel in his rec room at Casa de Shenandoah.

The very strangest thing about this show is that Newton refuses to even acknowledge that his voice, once sweet and bell-clear, isn’t what it was. Some singers, as they age, use their time-ravaged voices to express hard-won wisdom.

But Newton doesn’t do subtle — his range runs from perky to pathos. He goes for it in every song: “Danke Schoen” is basted in napalm and rolled in broken glass, “Summer Wind” sounds like a Santa Ana blowing through a brushfire.

Newton could very easily salvage “Once Before I Go.” Someone clearly spent a few dollars on the staging, which involves several video panels and a multi-tier movable bandstand for the 20 musicians and three backup vocalists.

And at 67, the star looks good (from a distance), crammed into a tuxedo, his hair shoe-polish black. Expert at creating instant rapport, he retains his eager-to-please charm and charisma — it’s really a pleasure just to be in the company of this genial old pro.

It’ll never happen, but Newton might have a solid show if he de-emphasized the singing in favor of the “Storytime With Mr. Las Vegas” elements, and talked intimately about the really interesting stuff — including his multiple bankruptcies and, well, what the hell happened to his voice.

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