Review: ‘Baz’ opens with a little party — and now the real fun begins

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Paul Citone / KabikPhotoGroup.com

Briana Cuoco performs as “The Courtesan” during a “Baz” show rehearsal at Palazzo Theater, Sunday, July 3, 2016.

Wed, Jul 13, 2016 (7:30 p.m.)

Stop me, or not, if you have heard this one: A terrifically talented show boasting an innovative concept and fueled by generous investment has opened on the Strip.

We have seen this mix of magic before in VegasVille, and it is to be applauded. But “Baz: Star Crossed Love” needs more than rah-rah as it relaunches on the Strip. The production celebrated its return in grandiose fashion Tuesday night at Palazzo Theater. The show is a winner, artistically. Now it requires persuasive word of mouth, patience and a steady stream of ticket-buyers.

"Baz" apparently has a six-month “reserve” fund to allow for marketing growth. Good. It will need that time to find its way.

That is the crystalized take on the new version of “Baz” at Palazzo. The show is nails. The production is comparably as talented as the version that played Light at Mandalay Bay last year — no easy feat — but in a room that is vastly superior in terms of sightlines, sound quality and the general “experience” of watching live entertainment.

To refresh: “Baz” is a production of the Los Angeles-based theatrical company For the Record, and the Vegas show is a rollout of cherry-picked numbers from the more recognizable works of writer and director Baz Luhrmann. Among the chosen few: “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby.”

As was the case at Light, "Baz" is expertly staged and tightly choreographed. The vocals are exceptional, across the board, with soaring performances from principal performers Joanna Jones as Daisy (who produces some intense, breakout-star action), Timyra Joi as Juliet, LJ Benet as Romeo, Skye Scott as Gatsby, and Bri Cuoco as the Courtesan and Payson Lewis as the Writer. They all have their moments, but Jones in particular soars in the closing scenes with “Love is Blindness” and “Over the Love.” (In one moment I happened to catch Ruby Lewis — who shone in that very role in the show at Mandalay Bay — and she was wiping tears from her cheeks as Jones performed).

Talent further spills across the stage with the ballroom dance tandem of Brittany Cherry (of “Dancing with the Stars”) and Nick Garcia. William Evans happily helms the spectacle from the plumb role of "Maestro" (or, Zidler of Moulin Rouge, previously). Familiar in the ensemble: Lisa Marie Smith, herself a budding star, has taken on this show after her starring role in “Pin Up” at the Stratosphere. Violinist Sami Ciarlo returns as the Green Fairy character, floating around the room in a more active way than at Light.

What else? The show is powered by a band led by keyboard wiz and music director Christopher Lash and filled with such top Vegas players as guitarist Jake Langley, drummer Pepe Jimenez and bassist Abo Gumroyan. All of them are highly regarded, highly proficient and versatile artists.

While the level of talent is unchanged from its first run, the show plays out differently than it did at Light. Unlike the original version, the production relies heavily on “Romeo” and “Gatsby” and pays comparatively scant attention to “Moulin Rouge,” where arguably the most dynamic (and marketable) scenes from the original show. The given reason for this creative move is that the production plans to adjust the lineup of numbers and balance of the show as the weeks unfold (there has been unconfirmed buzz that the show ran into some licensing issues centering on “Moulin Rouge” and had to recalibrate the show order, which might explain why Zidler is no longer a named character, leading to a delay in the show’s opening at Palazzo).

The show’s musical run order has shifted, too, though this is not terribly important to the uninitiated. In play, today, is a set list that reminds of the greater days of K-tel records: “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody,” "Where the Wind Blows,” "Lady Marmalade” paired with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Your Song,” “Love is the Drug,” "Love is Blindness,” “Like a Virgin” and a show-closing “Over the Love.” The resulting production is a dizzying experience, and as I remarked when leaving the theater, “I am very aware that I just saw a show.” You feel this one.

But is all that talent, passion and commitment — including from the hotel — enough to make “Baz” a long-running hit? There’s no guarantee, and one educated assessment is that for the show to break even it would need to sell 280-300 tickets a night at $49.

So “Baz” has some work to do. Remember, the production plugged along for seven weeks at Light at Mandalay Bay last year before closing in August. That’s when then-production partner Cirque du Soleil (in its Theatrical Division) shed the venue and got out of the nightclub business. It was just as well. The nightclub was cold, echoed, and was too awkwardly designed for the show to overcome (FTR Executive Producer Shane Scheel still winces when talking of trying to find Daisy while peering around pillars).

The feeling here is even if Cirque had held onto Light, “Baz” would have soon been looking for a new home anyway. The venue was a serious drag on the show, not great for repeat business, and ticket sales were an issue throughout the original “Baz” run.

Thus, the shift in venue has turned fortuitous for the show, as the Palazzo Theater is an inviting place to hang even when the show is not in session. The signature effect, if one can be identified, is a catwalk that extends from the middle of the main stage through lower level of the audience. This forms a figure-8 pattern, dividing a spate of cocktail tables and leading to a runway where the performers face audience members seated on couches.

The show thrives in this groovy fortress. Trust me, it is wicked cool, and so is “Baz.” This might be the time the stars finally align for this sky-high production on the Strip.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow Kats on Instagram Instagram.com/JohnnyKats1.

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