With his mob-history dance revue, legendary Las Vegas producer Jeff Kutash looks for one more big hit
Jeff Kutash has consorted with mobsters. And he personally ordered one body to be buried in the desert: that of a 14-foot alligator.
Kutash was the producer of Splash, the often kitschy but never dull production show synonymous with the last great era of the Riviera. The “aquacade” known for MTV-style dancing and motorcycle daredevils always needed new, show-stopping specialty acts. And Kutash thought he had found one in Tahar the Beastmaster, a Brazilian alligator wrestler.
Things went well, Kutash says, until he got a late-night call from Tahar: “Alligator dead.” It was then that Kutash told him, “Take the alligator out to the desert until you can’t see the lights twinkling.”
Years later, Kutash learned the actual cause of death. Someone left the door open on the alligator’s transport cage. It escaped to Riviera Boulevard, where it got run over by a pickup. But that didn’t kill it. Just left a tire track. So Tahar attempted to cover the track with green spray paint. That’s what killed it.
Clearly, that was a different era of Vegas. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the 73-year-old Kutash is back, doing a Las Vegas show for the first time since the quaintly titled topless revue Headlights & Tailpipes closed ahead of the Stardust in 2006.
A Mob Story is a simple title for the concoction Kutash unveils at The Plaza on July 11. It’s the real history of organized crime in Vegas — told through dance! But also by two narrators: impressionist Marcel Forestieri and genuine former mafioso Michael Franzese, who’s spent two decades on the lecture circuit.
During a recent rehearsal of his 17 dancers, Kutash oversees a sequence detailing the mob’s planned assassination of Fidel Castro, with dancers representing John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and alleged Kennedy mistress Judith Campbell. (“A tryst made in Vegas,” the narrator tells us.)
“I’ve combined a lot of elements in one show that normally would not be in Las Vegas,” he says. “I’m gonna have to say, this one is quite edgy.”
He moved back from California two years ago to mold A Mob Story into his “totalitarian” vision. “I just said there’s no sense in coming back here until I have the perfect storm,” he says. “I’ve seen too much shit, and I’ve been guilty of making my own mistakes to now know you don’t get a second or third shot anymore. ... You better do something that is bulletproof right out of the box.”
Kutash thinks his stars aligned in the authenticity Franzese brings to the project, a renovated Plaza showroom, a promotional tie-in with the Mob Museum, and appearances by Oscar Goodman, the former mayor and mob lawyer who defended Kutash when he was acquitted in a 1997 federal case alleging he tried to bribe then-District Judge Gerard Bongiovanni.
Kutash has known Franzese since 1986, when he staged dance sequences for the 1986 action flick Knights of the City. Franzese produced the movie when he was still part of the Colombo crime family. He later renounced “the life” and spent 43 months in federal prison.
“I told Jeff we’ve got a worldwide audience, that I’ve experienced this for the past 20 years,” Franzese says. Audiences in Singapore, he says, asked informed questions about Paul Castellano and John Gotti. And Kutash says he is “a big fan of the mob because I always worked for them, from back in the day, when I was a kid in Cleveland, all the way up through ‘Lefty’ (Frank Rosenthal) and Tony (Spilotro)” at the Stardust, early in his career.
Debuting at the Riviera in 1985, Splash cemented Kutash’s place in Vegas legend. The show was named for its 18-foot-tall diving tank. But it soon became known as the Vegas revue plugged into the MTV generation. Faded spectacles such as Lido de Paris still paraded showgirls on staircases, remnants of an earlier era. Splash was the ’80s at their electric boogaloo-est, with programmed lighting, lasers, and poppin’, lockin’ tributes to Michael Jackson.
The show ran 21 years, and only after the first eight did Cirque du Soleil begin to erode what the taste police couldn’t. (Acclaimed British theater designer John Napier said he “nearly vomited” when he saw Splash’s tribute to Broadway, complete with Phantom showgirls in mini-capes rimmed with runner lights).
Few of his contemporaries still have shows on the Strip. Norbert Aleman’s onetime Riviera mainstay Crazy Girls soldiers on at Planet Hollywood. Luxor’s durable Fantasy is produced by Anita Mann, whose first creation, AM — Blast from the Past, played at the Riviera before Crazy Girls arrived in 1987.
But Kutash brushes off any symbolic, last-of-the-breed resonance with his new effort. “Audience tastes change,” he says, “but the formula never really does.”
A MOB STORY Tickets $60-$150;
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