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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 a place 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

Book Review: I Never Knew That About New York

I-Never-Knew-That-About-NY-1The first cafe to serve cappuccino in America, Cafe Reggio, established in 1927 and featured in 1970s movies such as Shaft, Serpico and The Godfather Part II, is among the scads of trivia in the always enjoyable if not comprehensive I Never Knew That About New York by Christopher Winn, whose I Never Knew That… series is also nicely illustrated by his wife, Mai Osawa. The book goes on sale today.

For first-time visitors, longtime residents or those like me in between who have had an on-again, off-again relationship with America’s greatest city, this $16 paperback packs facts, stories and information into its pages. Lord & Taylor was the first store to introduce Christmas window displays, for instance, which one learns in an entry on Fifth Avenue. Most bits are included as stand alone paragraphs, though the book is separated by geography and includes essays, sidebars and longer but still short histories such as the bit on the New York Public Library.

I Never Knew That About New York contains morsels that may inform even the lifelong New Yorker. Did you know, for instance, that the Statue of Liberty’s real name is “Liberty Enlightening the World” and that Statue of Liberty is a nickname? You may know that Columbus Circle is the point from which all official distances to and from New York are measured, as Winn writes here, but do you know that the world’s first cinema opened in New York inside a converted shoe store? Among my favorites is a listing with online and physical addresses of places that are open to the public, from the J.P. Morgan Library and Columbia University to the New York Federal Reserve Bank and the Empire State Building. Neither encyclopedia nor travel guide, this hybrid of condensed histories is useful and interesting to everyone who loves New York

App Review: PhotoCard

PhotoCard app icon in iTunesHaving discovered an app that treats technology as a means to enhancing one’s experience of reality, not as a tool for developing a fixation on itself, I’m thrilled with an exciting new application.

Made by a former Apple entrepreneur and photographer named Bill Atkinson, PhotoCard is a free app available from the iTunes App store. It allows today’s traveler to create custom postcards using Atkinson’s crisp nature photos or original personal photos, then send them by email or postal mail from an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch. I’ve sent postcards to friends, family and others using unique photographs I took on my iPhone from recent visits to Arizona and Hawaii.

Here’s how it works.

I took photos while hiking on vacation. Later, I opened the free app – usually though not always on my iPad – and, after having sent a free e-mail postcard and loading a few dollars onto PhotoCard in advance, selected a postcard recipient from my address book or Contacts. Then, I chose the picture to place on the front of the postcard. Next, I wrote a note on the back of the postcard. I edited the card’s copy within a clean, streamlined interface that worked extremely well and without error. After picking the postage stamp from among a range of choices, I reviewed the final postcard in preview mode. I sent each piece of large, colorful correspondence. I’d made them in a few minutes while on the trip. Friends and family received each postcard several days later.

I was able to resize, crop and adjust photos and select among fonts, sizes and styles. E-mail postcards are free. Print versions sent via mail as I did cost $2 or less including First Class postage when sent within the U.S. – as little as $2.25 to other countries – on 8.25 by 5.5 inch cards using Hewlett-Packard Indigo digital press. Printed postcards are laminated. An e-mail confirmation notifies the sender when the card is being printed. Another e-mail arrives when it’s been mailed. Your history keeps and shows sent postcards. With all the features, PhotoCard is under 200 megabytes. See a demonstration in PhotoCard’s video on YouTube.

Creator Bill Atkinson, an original Macintosh partner at Apple Computer who designed much of the Mac’s initial user interface, is the author of the original QuickDraw, MacPaint and HyperCard software. He writes on his Web site that his approach to photography is driven by judgment fed by observation from sensory data, not by technological programming.

“Photography,” he writes, “begins not in the camera but in the mind and the eye. The real work is one of noticing and appreciating, seeing things clearly and differently, and sharing that vision with others. I have developed my vision and my photographic craft in order to bring the beauty of nature to light in a fresh way that can inspire and nourish people.”

Atkinson explains that an Arizona Highways magazine subscription inspired him to capture nature snapshots. As a pioneer of digital printing technology, he teaches workshops in fine art printmaking. His credo is control through digital printing. The individual activating his own vision in union with science and nature; this matches the Mac’s premise. Like Apple’s Macintosh computer, which turns 30 this month, the PhotoCard app is a wonderful tool for living. It exists purely to serve, realize and inspire each individual’s thought, ideas and action. Anticipating the photocorrespondent’s desires in featuring his work and applying the best principles of desktop publishing, PhotoCard is perfect.

Travel: Taliesin West

Having finally visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park, Illinois houses last winter, the Hollyhock and Ennis houses in Los Angeles and Taliesin in Wisconsin last year, I recently took one more fresh tour, the Insights tour, through his ingenious Taliesin West. Wright’s winter camp is located in Scottsdale, Arizona, though the docent pointed out that he probably wouldn’t have put it there today had he known what the local government would do.

What they did was mar the landscape he had worked so diligently to study, examine, research, consider, develop and integrate into his unique vision for the art of living he called modern architecture.

exterior at Taliesin West photo by Scott HolleranWhere Wright and his fellowship of apprentices had built a home, lab and place in sloping stone walls, redwood beams and sand to align with the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, the government has since made several changes including above-ground utility poles and other decisions he would have considered transgressions against art, nature and man. But then the docent on my recent tour, a student whose father is an architect who studied with Wright, pointed out that Wright thought traffic lights were also against man’s nature, too.

Wright created great American treasures from the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, and an iconic Rodeo Drive building in Beverly Hills to New York’s Guggenheim Museum and Fallingwater in western Pennsylvania. He had discovered Arizona in 1927, when he was contracted to design the Arizona Biltmore. Wright moved to the Grand Canyon State, staying each winter season, until he died in 1959.

He wrote about his design for Taliesin West:

I was struck by the beauty of the desert, by the dry, clear sun-drenched, air, by the stark geometry of the mountains, the entire region was an inspiration in strong contrast to the lush, pastoral landscape of my native Wisconsin. And out of that experience, a revelation is what I guess you might call it, came the design for these buildings. The design sprang out of itself, with no precedent and nothing following it.”

FLW TW CabaretPools, terraces, icicles, dragons, towers, gardens, theaters and living quarters – where I spotted his copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell – are masterfully forged into an angled camp that adheres to his philosophy that buildings be bathed in warm, natural light. Refusing to make it on a strict north-south axis, he once explained to an archivist that tilting the design off the direct compass points sunlight and shade throughout Taliesin West’s rooms and views all year long. Looking toward the Camelback Mountains and over Paradise Valley, he found in this land the wonders of what was once an ocean floor, accentuating unusual Cholla and Staghorn cactus for their resemblance to strange corals.

As Wright wrote in 1937:

We must believe architecture to be the living spirit

that made these buildings what they were.

It is a spirit by and for man,

a spirit of time and place.

And we must perceive architecture,

if we are to understand it at all,

to be a spirit of the spirit of man

that will live as long as man lives…


These buildings were wrested

by his tireless energy from the earth

and erected in the eye of the sun.

It was originally the conscious creation,

out of man himself, of a higher self.

His building, in order to be architecture,

was the true spirit of himself made manifest…

Taliesin West photo by Scott HolleranEach place at Taliesin West, from the sculpture garden to the cabaret, dining room – even the parking lot – bears the mark of Frank Lloyd Wright and must be seen to be fully experienced and appreciated. My pictures are just that. Some photography is forbidden due to copyright issues. There is much to enjoy and explore at Taliesin West. This was my second visit. Each time, I gain something of value. I plan to visit again. Like almost everything in the desert and the American West, it offers strange beauty, grand vistas of earth and sky and it brings out the best in man.

Tours currently range in time from 90 minutes to three hours, and from $24 to $75, with some requiring reservations in advance and most available for booking on site. Tour availability, hours, seasonal and adult/child/handicapped access issues are all addressed on the Web site:

Accredited architectural undergraduate and master’s degrees are also available through studies at Taliesin West. Tuition is $30,000 for each program. Competition for admission is strong, though applicants with advanced critical thinking and graphic arts skills are encouraged to apply for admission. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, divided into two season sessions at Taliesin West (October through May) and Taliesin (May through October), is a 12-month calendared, year-round program which requires residency on the campus. For more information, call the director of admissions at (480) 627-5345 or visit

Travel: The Boulders in Arizona

Mine was another southwestern Christmas at The Boulders in Arizona. As one of two of the nation’s best Phoenix metropolitan area resorts (the other is the Arizona Biltmore), The Boulders offers a unique resort experience which is what I wanted. With tennis, golf, trails, swimming and fitness programs on a sprawling property that straddles Scottsdale and a small Western town called Carefree, The Boulders, owned and operated by the Hilton-owned Waldorf-Astoria brand, is best for healthy restoration and athletic activity.

Cactus at the Boulders photo by Scott HolleranSpread over acres of desert with the resort lodge, individual casitas, walking trails, three heated pools and hot tubs, golf course and clubhouse, tennis courts and adjacent shopping village – not to mention the privately owned Boulders houses on the property – the main attraction are the big boulders scattered across the land where they’ve been for millions and millions of years. As if there’s not enough to do on site, and life is slow in Arizona, nearby horseback riding, hiking, shopping and tours are also available. But I recommend staying and walking around, which I did as often as possible. Early morning and sundown are blissful times of day. Late nights under the stars are also inviting. Casita and villa rates range between $200 and $1,200 per night.

For all the luxury, there’s a do it yourself quality to the resort, which takes getting used to. I’ve stayed here before – including a stay during Christmastime – and I’ve been back several times since. It is easy to get lost, especially at night. The place is understated in every way, designed to blend in with the harsh desert landscape. Lighting is minimal at best. There are no streetlights. This is why the stars come out at nightfall. Don’t get caught on the paved paths at night or you’ll risk getting lost. The Boulders is physically huge and service is relatively laissez-faire, which is part of the relaxed, Western ranch style approach to hospitality.

Casita at the Boulders photo by Scott HolleranCasitas are individually configured and appointed. Mine was priced on the low end and equipped with a wood-burning fireplace, bench seating, two chairs, a reading lamp, balcony, Keurig coffee maker, iHome alarm clock and docking station, vanity, walk-in closet, wet bar, bathrobes and TV. Besides walking as the primary mode of transportation, everyone including staff uses golf carts to get around, even local Boulders residents, and I stayed on the property at a private home for most of the visit. From the residences, there’s a 5-minute drive over to the lodge if a walk’s not on the agenda. The lodge has two dining facilities with vaunted ceilings, a gift shop with essentials and proprietary merchandise, a bar and a lobby lounge with wood-burning fireplaces. Fires burn indoors and outdoors at the resort’s discretion unless the government’s dictating air quality. An evening performance by a folk singer with a cowboy hat served as Christmas entertainment. Light snacks and sandwiches are available in the lobby bar. There’s no front desk as such. Two desks serve as check-in centers. A concierge and a couple of computers for guest use are a few steps up behind the fireplace.

Lodge poolside at the Boulders photo by Scott HolleranStep outside the lobby for a heated pool and poolside, fire pits, hot tub, poolhouse and a short trail up to the vista point where most of the property and surrounding environs can be seen. A spa operates separately, so does a golf clubhouse restaurant and pro shop and everyone on staff constantly reminds resident guests and visitors that the resort is separate, too. The a la carte feel is mildly disruptive when trying to relax, read and have a drink or meet for business in the lounge as I did. But once settled in and welcomed, the staff generally adjusts and serves good food, drink and hospitality. There are exceptions, of course. No one seems acquainted with Hilton’s rewards program and how it works. Some are consumed by stating rules of the club, lodge or resort at the expense of a warm welcome. Meals vary in quality but most were excellent.

Besides branding conflicts, figuring out how to navigate the resort and one nasty episode in the lobby with a drunken guest, the Christmas visit was perfectly charming. I swam, hiked, strolled, dined, read, wrote and conducted business in person, by phone and Internet without problems. Besides The Boulders, a small, largely vacant commercial property called El Pedregal is located down the path. El Pedregal is also Hilton-owned. The plaza contains a couple of decent places, too. The Spotted Donkey cantina at El Pedregal has a bar with sports on TV, where I had a hamburger and glass of wine while watching the game, and there’s a Ben & Jerry’s for ice cream cones. I also discovered a delightful family-owned restaurant called Brugo’s Pizza Company at happy hour. The place has delicious desserts, pizza and wine and the owner and staff are the best in town. The views from Brugo’s are amazing.

Waterfall at the Boulders photo by Scott HolleranAgain, being among the boulders at The Boulders is the real treat. So, a manic, cram-it-in vacation approach won’t do the resort or your visit justice. If you go, plan ahead and have recharge and backup for GPS and cell phones because you’ll probably get lost on foot, by cart and by car. If you golf, golf. Walk around. Enjoy the desert sights, sounds and smells. Breathe it in and feel good. Roll with whatever crosses your path – woodpeckers, roadrunners, coyotes, deer, snakes, spiders, jackrabbits, lizards, mountain lions – I’ve seen them all at The Boulders, which was first recommended to me decades ago by my friend Sharlee. She was right and it gets better as few places do. It’s not immune from cultural contamination and there’s always room to go up or down in quality – Hilton’s recently had the biggest hotel initial public offering in history – but for stillness, sunshine and moonshine and reenergizing amid desert surroundings with attentive staff and exquisite accommodations, head for The Boulders.