Question of the Day August 19, 2014
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Q:This question is regarding one of the choices in your 8/13/2014 LVA Reader Poll: "I have fun exploring the more 'underground' entertainment scene, like the alternative productions at Onyx Theater, the burlesque bar scene, the 'extra-curricular' shows that cast members from Cirque, Absinthe etc. put on by themselves -- I see the same talent, but for a fraction of Strip prices, and it’s something experimental and different. It’s more fun and a lot more wallet-friendly than seeing a typical production show.' That sounds like fun! Can you provide some detailed information on the "underground" entertainment scene? We really enjoyed Absinthe on our last trip to Vegas, and would love to explore the "extra-curricular" entertainment options you eluded to. Thanks!
A:It used to be a jaded but pretty accurate cliche that "Las Vegas has no culture," referring primarily to the fact that this was a very transient city, where few residents had been born and raised here, and where the majority of entertainment offerings were geared toward the mainstream tourist crowd.
However, that whole picture has shifted significantly over the past decade or so, and there's now a much more stable resident population, including many performers who are employed by long-running Strip productions but who have aspirations of their own, or who simply want something fun to do outside of the "day" job. Events like First Friday used to be pretty parochial, but these days, under the Zappos ownership (and funding), what was once a small monthly showcase of local art galleries, vintage stores, street vendors, and buskers is now a major cultural happening attracting some 20-30,000 visitors.
In addition, there is now a very credible history of homegrown acts who've made it big, with bands like the Killers and Imagine Dragons, to name but two examples, and such success stories have served to inspire other up-and-coming talent. Plus, at the other end of the spectrum, even though the casino-lounge venues of yore may be a dying breed these days, there are still classic Vegas old-time performers who may be found catering to their peer audiences in off-Strip venues frequented by locals.
We're not going to attempt to be comprehensive with this answer, or we could be here all night, and venues come and go, or shift their focus, so do call ahead or check the website of any place we might mention before you make a special trip. For example, the diminutive Aruba hotel (1215 S. Las Vegas Blvd.) became quite the alt. ent. hub a few years back, and hosted a whole series of eclectic shows by Cirque performers and others, like the Lustre Flux free cabaret shows featuring fire-breathers, drag queens, and burlesque acts, but these days the lounge there seems to have reverted to hosting more typical themed (Latin, reggae, etc.) club nights. Plans for a theater in the Fashion Show Mall never came to fruition, while a brief experiment into alternative theater upstairs at downtown's Plaza also failed to stay the course.
What follows are some still-extant suggestions to whet your appetite; try checking out the local free magazines, like Las Vegas Weekly and Seven for further inspiration on your next visit.
- Onyx Theatre: This, to quote the official website, is "Las Vegas' leading alternative theatrical and performance space for world-class and local artists [providing] a space dedicated to personal artistic expression, free minds, and unrestrained entertainment." Located inside Commercial Center, on E. Sahara (home also to acclaimed Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam and the equally famous Green Door swingers club), the entrance to this little theater is accessed via a lingerie store and, to give you an idea of its eclectic remit, upcoming offerings include: a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by an acclaimed local fringe company; Broadway Open Mic Night (yes, it's open mic, but strictly for those of a musical bent: "Bring your sheet music," reads the flyer); a production of Neil Simon's California Suite; a one-night performance of original material from a local jazz quartet; and the homegrown Twisted Cherry Burlesque cabaret. Tickets for most events here are in the $15-$20 range.
- A newcomer to the scene is the Art Square Theatre downtown which, again to quote the official blurb, is "an intimate, flexible, black box theatre that seats up to 99 comfortably. Host to resident company, Cockroach Theatre, and guest artists throughout the year, AST is host to some of the top talent of Las Vegas and abroad. Check the site for upcoming productions and events.
- Another newcomer is the Inspire Theater downtown (107 Las Vegas Blvd. S), which dubs itself "the event center/bar complex/corner newsstand/cafe" that Las Vegas (and the rest of the world) has been waiting for. It's designed for locals and tourists alike and features everything from nearly 200 hometown papers and international magazines, to Italian-style coffee, Vegas-style entertainment, and stellar views of downtown’s bustling Fremont East Entertainment District. Check out their Facebook page for more information.
- Cast members from Absinthe, which performs in a "permanent" tent at Caesars Palace, recently branched off to present the improvisational Vegas Nocturne "happenings" inside Cosmopolitan's Rose.Rabbit.Lie. venue. That relationship quickly soured, but this spin-off from producers Spiegelworld is said to be in search of a new home, so stay tuned. Melody Sweets, who plays the Green Fairy in Absinthe, has her own solo burlesque career, however, and recently performed her Shoot 'Em Bang Bang Wild West Burlesque Show in the Spiegelworld tent, aided and abetted by fellow cast members, so look out for more from Melody (sign up to follow her on Twitter or Facebook for the latest news).
- If you're into the burlesque-revival scene, Arnold Snyder has a whole section dedicated to the acts and venues available in Las Vegas, which is becoming quite a focal point for talent (and hosts the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame Awards), so visit ToplessVegasOnline for an overview, plus his in-depth reviews of all the current acts/shows and where you can catch them.
- A mysterious outfit called Kamikaze Circus promised a run of upcoming one-off "immersive theater" experiences "in the vein of Cirque du Soleil," but with darker, edgier bent. We were intrigued, but the first event, held at the D, quickly sold out, and nothing has been forthcoming since, aside from a canceled Rockfest. Their Facebook page is still there, but the main website seems to be gone...
- If you're looking for something more old school, on Monday nights the Tap House bar and restaurant (5589 W. Charleston) features The Vegas Underground. An open mic night with a difference, the performers here are all showbiz vets or working artists, including several talented tribute acts (Sammy, Elvis, Neil Diamond etc.) and was showcased by the LA Times not so long ago. It runs from 7:30 to midnight, there's no cover, and the audience (plenty of genuine "wise guys" and their big-haired, sequined wives), are as much of a feast for the eyes as the performers are for the ears. It gets packed, so don't be late if you want a seat.
- Our final suggestion is Vegas Wonderground, a showcase hosted by veteran magician Jeff McBride, which takes place on the third Thursday of the month at The Olive Mediterranean restaurant (93850 East Sunset) and, for a $10 cover, will entertain you with a lineup of different entertainers that might feature magicians, jugglers, dancers, fire eaters, and poets, plus live painting and sculpture. Fun stuff!
Again, this is not pretending to be a comprehensive list, but we hope it's given you some food for thought. Again, check the local free press and look out for flyers for other happenings, should you happen to attend any of the events or venues we mention.