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October 21, 2014

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‘Peepshow’ was unique and ambitious in its run at Planet Hollywood

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David Becker/WireImage

Cheaza, Nicole “Coco” Austin, Jerry Mitchell and Josh Strickland appear onstage after Austin’s official opening-night performance of “Peepshow” at Planet Hollywood on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.

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Not long ago, I was talking to Tara Palsha, who made a passing reference to “Peepshow.” She said something about what it was like to dance in the show, as if she knew from experience what it was like to dance in the show.

“How would you know about ‘Peepshow?’” I asked. Palsha has been the principal dancer in “Vegas! The Show” for three years and has recently taken up singing. But then I remembered: Palsha was the original Little Red Riding Hood in “Peepshow” when it opened in April 2009.

Ages ago, it seems.

It feels like forever since “Peepshow” opened, when audience members were all agog over co-stars Mel B and Kelly Monaco and blown away by the singing of one-time “Tarzan” Josh Strickland. There was an all-female band set high on a platform behind the rotating collection of lavish set pieces, and the dance troupe burned up the stage.

This was the period when those in the crowd did not realize that Timber, the bashful audience member called onstage, was actually a member of the cast. “Wow, the guy they picked randomly from the audience really knows how to climb that rope!”

The cast has changed, and almost everyone — save Strickland and Cheaza, then an ensemble performer who will close the run as Peep Diva on Sunday night — has moved on.

From those early days, “Peepshow” was no ordinary topless show. It had a story. Maybe it was a dopey story, about a timid lass building self-esteem through a series of adult-themed nursery rhymes, at the end of which she doffed her top. But all these scenes did graduate to that climactic moment: The smoldering Little Red Riding Hood, with the smoke-belching sports car; the excitable Big Bad Wolf; the gigantic pumpkin that was home to Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater; and “Teddy,” the scene for which Holly Madison learned to sing.

“Peepshow” deserves credit for its artistic ambition. I recall thinking after the show’s opening performance in 2009 that if what we saw onstage could remain in place, this would be one of the Strip’s most successful shows. Mel B dominated the stage. Monaco was an able stage performer, having just won “Dancing With the Stars,” and played Bo Peep beautifully.

Strickland gave “Peepshow” genuine Broadway credibility. The staging was advanced, intricate and (obviously) expensive. That live band was unique for adult productions in Las Vegas, an indication that Base Entertainment and choreographer/director Jerry Mitchell were serious about setting “Peepshow” apart from other topless shows in town. It was up there with the Cirque du Soleil productions, or their own “Jersey Boys” and “Phantom — the Las Vegas Spectacular,” at least in terms of artistic ambition.

“Peepshow” became different, leaner after that first three-month period. Mel B (whose husband was reportedly a constant source of tension at the hotel and the production) and Monaco departed after their contracts expired. The band was dismissed in favor of tracks, obviously a cost-saving measure. But the investment in Madison was astute and created a buzz about the show that was lacking even when Mel B and Monaco were the stars.

It didn’t matter that Madison never performed on a stage in a ticketed show before joining “Peepshow” in the summer of 2009. She was an appealing personality and a lightning rod for attention. She was the center of a reality TVshow, “Holly’s World,” that helped make those in “Peepshow” (especially Strickland) and others around the show (including Angel Porrino, Madison’s friend at the time) known throughout the country. “Peepshow” benefited from the ancillary free publicity, too. Ticket sales for the show were at their peak during the two-season run of “Holly’s World.”

Whether the cameras were trained on “Peepshow” seemed irrelevant to the show’s behind-the-scenes drama. Aubrey O’Day’s stint with the show was particularly hilarious, as she never meshed with Madison or nearly anyone else in the production.

The series of “Peepshow” guest stars included the wonderfully talented Shoshana Bean in the Peep Diva role, and Porrino was called back when Madison became pregnant and announced that she was leaving the show in October 2012, a couple of months earlier than originally planned.

When Madison finished her run of more than three years, she left a template of sorts for “Peepshow” that led to the signing of Coco Austin to the role of Bo Peep: The show again featured a nationally famous frontwoman who had posed for Playboy and starred in a reality TV show.

But Madison broke cleanly from the production. There was no formal passing-of-the-baton moment, and she has not been back to “Peepshow” since her final appearance onstage. Days after the show’s closing was announced, she said, “It’s a shame to see it go. I have years of great memories working with such great people in such a fun show.”

Austin proved a hard-working, likable and popular central performer whose dance training impressed Mitchell and the show’s producers. Base co-CEO Scott Zeiger has said plans are for the show to return in a different, likely less-elaborate form in 2014. He has said Mitchell, still riding the crest of his Tony Award-winning Broadway hit “Kinky Boots,” would head up the creative team, but if the show is non-union, it is questionable whether Mitchell would take on a formal role. The Quad Showroom has been the center of chatter in the Las Vegas entertainment community as the next likely home for the new “Peepshow.”

Whatever happens, “Peepshow” was unique. Originally a concept thought to be the next-generation’s “Jubilee,” it didn’t fit that model completely, for its 4 1/2-year duration. But similar to that smokin' red sports car, it was a fun little ride.

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

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