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Review: Summer Nights by Olivia Newton-John at The Flamingo Las Vegas

ONJSNFLVOlivia Newton-John’s first Las Vegas residency, inside the Donny & Marie Showroom at Caesar Entertainment’s Flamingo Hotel and Casino, is an intimate, poignant show she calls “Summer Nights”. The 20-plus song production premiered this week. I’ve met and written about Olivia over the years at various stages of her extraordinary career and, in Vegas for a conference, I wanted to see her new show before the grand opening.

The iconic star emerged looking and sounding fabulous. Stepping out in black and white, framed by the venue’s familiar pink, her understated stage presence is as relaxed, seasoned and elegant as the themes of her earliest hit records. After decades of recording, filming and touring, Olivia is a masterful artist, who, like Doris Day, never really gets the serious credit she deserves. With a refreshing emphasis on music, Olivia sang her most popular and audience-friendly songs and a few cover tunes. Her 45-date engagement runs through August.

In perfect tune on every song from “Physical” to “Have You Never Been Mellow”, Olivia clearly takes care of herself. Her voice, which still expresses her unique blend of struggle, strength and sweetness, achieves clarity in every song and clarity defines her superior vocal style. She moves with ease in simple, playful choreography that wisely lets the spotlight stay centered on the 65-year-old pop star. The skilled eight-piece band and spot-on backup singers play against a black and white stage design, which complements ONJ’s pronounced style. She kept banter light and humorous.

Xanadu soundtrack songs include the hits “Magic” and “Suddenly” and the show features luminous images from the 1980 picture, from movie publicity stills to clips of her film character, Kira, dancing with co-star Gene Kelly. “Summer Nights” includes themed segments for Grease (1978) songs (“We Go Together”, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee (reprise)”, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want”) and a medley of Olivia’s early country recordings and hits, including “Country Roads”, “If You Love Me Let Me Know”, “Please Mr. Please” and “Let Me Be There”. The show’s title number, the boy-girl, tell-me-more ensemble duet from Grease, is a crowd pleaser. When the audience added its own pathetic attempt at the heavy sigh that was originally John Travolta‘s oh at the climax of the story in song, Olivia hilariously broke character and turned to the audience in mock horror, a brief moment of self-awareness which made the finale all the more satisfying for everyone in the room. “Summer Nights” employs a jovial, even raucous, sense of life. It’s hard not to have a blast when she’s singing about “good, Kentucky whiskey”, getting animal and places where nobody dared to go.

Though this longtime fan missed hearing Olivia perform songs from Two of a Kind, Back with a Heart, Soul Kiss, Grace and Gratitude and The Rumour, the show is a musical journey from “I Honestly Love You” (1974) to ONJ’s Brazilian-influenced Gaia anthem “Not Gonna Give Into It” (1994) and more, so it is understandable why certain songs didn’t make the final set list. Whatever one’s favorite moment or song from the remarkable career of Olivia Newton-John, some of the most powerful performances in “Summer Nights” are her covers of “Cry Me a River”, “Over the Rainbow” and the stirring rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s layered “Send in the Clowns” from the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. The mystery of what moves us in music is of course enormously complicated, so each member of the audience will be touched in some unique way by Olivia’s incredible range in theme, technique and life experience. But you will never think of Olivia as a mere pleasant voice or source for fun pop diversion from the past again. Here, she delivers a rewarding sample of why she is the best.

The impeccable performance – expect stark staging, not glitz ala Cher or Celine Dion – stems from ONJ’s status as a true pop music diva who has earned every dollar; she was an opening act for Charlie Rich at the Las Vegas Hilton in the summer of 1974, worked with Don Rickles, Eddie Rabbit and other Vegas acts, so Olivia knows the boulevard’s demands and strikes the proper tone for a show that combines glamor and ability. Her 40th year return to performing in Las Vegas, this time in headline residency, is a triumph.

The fact that Olivia recently lost her sister, Rona, to cancer, makes the charitable part of this production especially meaningful. In 1992, Olivia was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her personal thriving led her to create a partnership with the Austin Health and the creation of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre (ONJCWC) in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Olivia donates a portion of the $68-$249 ticket price to the ONJCWC, which provides comprehensive services for cancer treatment, education, training and research as well as a dedicated wellness center.

Who:: Olivia Newton-John

What: Summer Nights

Where: The Flamingo Las Vegas

When: April through August

How Much: $68 to $249

New Music Interview: Henry Jackman

HJCATWSRead the new interview I recently conducted with Captain America: The Winter Soldier composer Henry Jackman on The New Romanticist. In this exclusive interview about America’s top movie, a Marvel Studios picture which exceeded expectations to earn $96 million in the opening weekend, Jackman talks about the meaning of music for film, whether he sees man as heroic and whom between Captain America and Captain Phillips, another title character from the last film he scored, he would prefer to have as a dinner guest.

This is one of my most free-wheeling interviews – we went into overtime – and, besides The King’s Speech composer Alexandre Desplat and Grammy-winning songwriter Melissa Manchester, who co-wrote a song for The Weinstein Company’s Dirty Girl with Mary Steenburgen, it offers a closer examination of the creative process of telling stories through motion pictures. I hope readers enjoy the new interview as much as I did.

Speaking of music, I am still enjoying what I listen to on CD and iTunes, from James Blunt, Stevie Nicks and Elton John to Avicii, and newly remastered or released recordings by the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. I am also working on an exclusive new series of interviews with one of my favorite artists, Melissa Manchester, who is making a new, crowdfunded album (her 20th!) of the great American songbook with new tunes she wrote and appearances by classic jazz and pop artists. I’ve been privileged to attend recording sessions for the new work and I am excited. This week, I am planning to attend a preview of a new, live show, Summer Nights, by another favorite artist, Olivia Newton-John, at her residency at the Donny and Marie Showroom in the Flamingo Las Vegas. Olivia also has a new record, which I plan to review. New music from legendary artists and for enjoyable movies (and my writing teacher Leonard Peikoff just announced an amateur jazz performance at OCON in Las Vegas this summer) should make for more good tunes throughout the year.

Robert Downey, Jr.

RDJAs awards shows have proliferated, they have become proportionately meaningless except as the equivalent of momentary outbursts of some sort of cultural display. Miley Cyrus comes to mind. The Oscars used to revel in glamor, though less and less so. The Grammys would indicate the general state of popular music. And so on. This makes Robert Downey Jr.’s appearance at this weekend’s Kids’ Choice Awards, concocted by Nickelodeon and sponsored by Bounty, Toyota and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, less a leading cultural indicator than merely another high point lost in the increasingly wild and swirling news cycle that long ago ceased to be filtered by sound judgment from rational minds.

It doesn’t help that Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, The Soloist) appeared to accept an award called Best Male Buttkicker. Ours is a fast-moving era that encourages short-range, fragmentary half-thoughts instead of long-range, contemplative rationality as that awards title suggests. That’s too bad because Downey, an actor who is heroic in real life for having beaten the monster of drug addiction, an enormous achievement in a confusing world, said something important. That he chose to say it to an appropriate audience, children, with clarity of topic and theme, is impressive.

Accepting the award, he told the audience: “You know I wasn’t always a buttkicker. In fact, life has kicked my proverbial butt countless times in many ways for many years, until I decided one day to start kicking back. Now look at me!” Cashing in on what that really means, he pointedly turned today’s rampant look at me! self-centeredness into something more constructive, adding, as a poignant afterthought: “Remember when life is kicking your butt, never forget to kick it back right in the face.” In this context, Downey’s is a well-told lesson in self-renewal; that life means fighting, being assertive and, if necessary, self-defensive with the aggression aimed to hit the right spot. Too often in life we are told to passively yield, accept, resign and be at peace, or let it be or let it go, regardless of context. Downey’s words are a crucial and urgent counsel to today’s scoreless, overtested, indoctrinated youth to do the opposite and choose to judge, reject victimhood and if necessary fight back. What he said goes against everything today’s youths are being taught and propagandized. What he lives by example – and projects onto the screen – offers the youthful of all ages proof that life is worth fighting for.

Before the Oscars

Before the Oscars, I attended a thoughtful discussion of what it means to match music to motion pictures, courtesy of composer Alexandre Desplat, who was gracious enough to take to the piano and perform a few selections from his astonishing career in scoring movies at a Weinstein Company event at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Photo by Scott Holleran. Copyright 2014 Scott Holleran. May not be used without permission.

Alexandre Desplat plays Philomena score at the Polo Lounge, Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Photo © Copyright 2014 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Desplat, whom I interviewed about his work and score during release of The King’s Speech, is nominated for tonight’s 2013 Academy Awards for his Philomena score which he explored and sampled in a room near the Polo Lounge. It was standing room only as the Frenchman talked about his distinguished career, including music for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the role of melody and why he likes to integrate melancholy into each of his themes for film. He confirmed that his next project is scoring a remake of Godzilla. But Philomena was the main topic, with Desplat explaining how he brought the fairgrounds theme from the title character’s early indiscretion full circle into the rest of her lifelong journey and the old-age search to locate the child who was taken away. As always, he was honest, frank and tactful about Hollywood’s impossible process for making movies punctuated by proper music.

This is Hollywood’s big night and what a good year 2013 was in pictures. Nebraska gave actor Bruce Dern attention he deserves, though not for that blank slate. Frozen and Gravity made huge box office while further dumbing down the audience. Her offered the opposite: a thoughtful movie which is too abstract. Other good films include the historical Emperor, Tina Fey’s stimulating Admission, the old-fashioned, period piece 42, Brad Pitt’s reinvigorated World War Z, Man of Steel, Last Vegas, Catching Fire, Prisoners and Oz the Great and Powerful while The Great Gatsby, Lovelace and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone were less than great and incredible. Though I have not seen every major movie from last year, and with the brilliantly constructed Philomena in top contention, by my estimate, 2013’s best films are: 3. Dallas Buyers Club 2. Mud 1. 12 Years a Slave.

Dallas Buyers Club is a richly textured dramatization of one Texan versus the government in a dramatic showdown with life itself at stake in every moment. Mud is about what makes men from boys. 12 Years a Slave is Hollywood’s first serious film about American slavery taken in the measure of one man who is born free. It deserves the highest praise. Another picture about one individual’s odyssey into a dark, strange world will be honored tonight during a reunion of Judy Garland’s children including Liza Minnelli: The Wizard of Oz, which celebrates its 75th year. With Ellen DeGeneres hosting again, I do hope tonight’s Oscars do not repeat past affairs and instead toast with glamor to the best movies and moviemaking.

 

 

Alec Baldwin and Piers Morgan

Two casualties of our increasingly vapid media culture are speaking out.

Alec Baldwin, an MSNBC host who was fired after one too many meltdowns, and Piers Morgan, CNN‘s prime-time host whose show is being eliminated according to today’s reports, recently gave their thoughts on why they are rejected by audiences. Both blame Americans to some degree and accept partial responsibility. Both are self-centered and lean left. Both brought on their own declines.

AB courtesy of Emmys.orgAlec Baldwin makes his case in a rambling online rant (read it here) while Piers Morgan talked to the New York Times in apparent advance of having had Piers Morgan Live cut from CNN’s schedule. Baldwin makes some good points about privacy, media and the right to be left alone. But he would have more credibility if he hadn’t been cashing in on media culture for decades. He disputes that he used the word “faggot” in a videotaped diatribe despite appearances to the contrary and he laments that he’s lost nearly all of his endorsement deals and jobs in the aftermath and says he’s quitting public life. Again, he would be more persuasive if he had made an argument sooner and in an appropriate forum.

Baldwin claims he’s a victim because no one believes him that he didn’t use the derogatory term. But it’s easy to see why someone who raged against his own daughter on an answering machine message, became belligerent on an airplane and admits calling someone a “toxic little queen” who profits from his abrasive personality is accused of using the term. Baldwin should also know that people who intend to have an apology (which he offers in the rant) accepted do not follow with the word “but” as he does. The “but” reduces or negates the preceding apology.

Baldwin spent years after a successful acting career making himself infamous for popping off, climaxing in a series of cynical commercials for Capital One’s credit card. Then he started a show on a left-wing channel. Every word of what Baldwin writes in the rant that’s true, and some of it is, is undermined by the fact that he remained silent, sanctioned and profited from mass media, including the part that lies, smears and destroys from the left. Acknowledgement of complicity is the first step in recovery.

PM courtesy of The GuardianFour years ago, Piers Morgan was known in the U.S. for that famous YouTube clip of Susan Boyle singing a song from Les Miserables. Then, during an incessant countdown to Larry King’s retirement from the aging, stale and obsequious Larry King Live, CNN inexplicably promoted the British tabloid figure and paved the way for the ratings disaster that he’s since and steadily become. Morgan, who railed against the right to own guns, blames America’s culture for not connecting with audiences.

However, there is a simpler explanation. Morgan never took ideas seriously and it showed every night on his show, whether he was kissing Oprah‘s ring in a shallow interview with the media magnate or flirting with every guest and imposing himself in every conversation. Coming to America to take over an established media business property that’s been around in some form since the golden age of radio and promptly making it all about yourself and your Twitter account in what amounts to a chat in which you proclaim how confounded you are by your new host country is not likely to endear you to viewers in that country.

To his credit, Morgan did try to improve and get more serious. But it was obvious that his heart wasn’t in it, he was itching to get back to gossip, fluff and talking about himself. His ethics in airing interviews with seriously damaged celebrities such as Charlie Sheen hastened Piers Morgan’s demise; he appeared desperate and unserious.

Yet Baldwin’s and Morgan’s departures are not all good riddance. In format and function, they provided or sought to provide an exchange of ideas, which is what good journalism should strive to do. As the culture loses basic forums, venues and institutions, the dumbing down worsens. Eventually, the free press dies. It took decades for U.S. culture to go from reading newspapers and watching Walter Cronkite on CBS News to reading Tweets and watching pets on YouTube – or a vacant populist popping off nightly on MSNBC or Fox News – and whatever comes after Morgan and Baldwin, whether it’s more sex, crime or celebrity programming, is likely to accelerate the nation’s intellectual decline.