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Critic’s Notebook: Camp Town

Atomic Saloon Show

Atomic Saloon Show

Once a staple of Strip entertainment, the camp sensibility waned for years — but now it’s back

For every tuxedo, a rhinestone. For every Sinatra, a Liberace. The “Vegas cool” of legend always had a counterpart: Vegas camp. The wink and the snicker loomed large in Strip showrooms, from the 1950s arrival of camp’s bedazzled O.G., Liberace, through the era of grand showgirl revues such as Jubilee!, with its Samson-deceiving Delilah, and the hussy who sank the Titanic by distracting the boys in the engine room.

But just as Sinatra cool ran deeper than skinny ties and scotch tumblers, “camp” is a more fluid, elusive sensibility that echoes the famous definition of pornography: You know it when you see it. Further confusing the issue is that camp subdivides into basically two categories: Covert, or overt? Subtext, or text? Ironic or deliberate?

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Ru Paul

Conveniently, the recent drift of casino entertainment illustrates the difference. One recent show arrival reminds us of the winking old days, while two new ones embrace the breaking down of gender and sexual walls that makes new camp more mainstream, to the point where the cable-TV hit Ru Paul’s Drag Race is now coming to the Flamingo for an extended run starting in January. 

Dutch magician Hans Klok’s recent arrival at Excalibur is the throwback: Siegfried, in search of a Roy, as he rocks the wavy blond tresses, his shirt unbuttoned to show off his spray tan. Though it’s all family fun on the surface, the showcase of classic illusions roughly divides into two columns. (a) Klok ties up his miniskirted “Divas of Magic,” stuffs them into boxes and plastic bags, or stretches them across the points of swords. Or (b) the Divas turn the tables on him with the help of an evil queen in a black cape, and it’s his turn to be locked in the box or impaled on the spear. Spoiler alert: He always manages to switch places with his tormentors and pop out with that blond coif and pearly smile. Here, the camp is in the subtext.

For a Vegas showbiz nanosecond, Brett Loudermilk wore black trousers, loafers, and a buttoned-up shirt for his sword-swallowing act in the short-lived Band of Magicians at the Tropicana. But these days, you can find him at The Cosmopolitan, where he answers to the name of Rear Admiral Todd Vader in Opium. Loudermilk now does his act in silver booties and short-shorts with a prominent bulge. The show’s retro-future fashions (imagine a gay planet visited by the original Star Trek crew) carry the boots-and-shorts look over to the fellow who does the hula-hoop act, and the shirtless strongman who does his balancing act with a Chihuahua.

Opium comes courtesy of Spiegelworld, the first production house to get traction with ongoing shows on the Strip since the recession. Spiegelworld is following Cirque’s path to multiple titles, adding to Opium and Absinthe, at Caesars Palace, with Atomic Saloon Show, which opened last month in the Venetian.

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Atomic means to be in-your-face. Literally. Audiences at an August shakedown run at Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe saw the male lead give a male audience member a lap dance — twice. As with Opium, there’s a sustained premise, this time a postapocalyptic Wild West saloon. The show opener is a rousing little ditty centered on the “grab ’em by the ...” word. The acrobatic action includes a male aerialist in a thong, and a nun’s creative use of ping-pong balls to play a xylophone. (Las Vegas audiences won’t see a male stripper go “full Monty,” as Edinburgh crowds did. “In Vegas there are rules that apply — contracts and partnerships — and we adhere to all of those,” says Spiegelworld impresario Ross Mollison.)     

“It’s a very saucy show,” Atomic director Cal McCrystal says. “It pushes the boundaries, this show.” But, he adds, “it’s also a very warmhearted and straightforward show. ... In a way it’s very traditional (in its storytelling), but it’s also very outrageous. I didn’t set out to make it campy, I just set out to make it funny. But when you get big, well-built people doing silly things, it kind of looks campy.”

Time will tell if the millennial generation’s nonchalance about “binary” or omnisexual behavior means Atomic won’t have to align with either the “straight” humor of Absinthe or the “gay” aesthetic of Opium. “It’s everything,” Mollison says. “That’s why RuPaul’s Drag Race is so popular now. It doesn’t matter what your sexuality (is). ... And I think people will love Atomic for the same reasons.”

Sexuality sure used to matter, though. For decades, Las Vegas was deliberately vague about who was in on the joke. Even into the modern era, the long-running An Evening at La Cage was possibly the straightest drag show ever, devoting at least half its running time to literal, lip-sync impersonations of celebrity pop divas.

“Camp” wasn’t really part of the lexicon until writer and cultural critic Susan Sontag attempted a sprawling definition of it in her landmark 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” It was published only a few months after Liberace showed he was one of the few Las Vegas stars with the stature to barge in on the Beatles at the Sahara, during an August stop on their landmark U.S. tour, as George Harrison later recalled.

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Liberace’s 1955 inauguration of the Riviera was a milestone because his $50,000-per-week salary made him the Strip’s highest-paid entertainer to that point. On opening night, he chased his silver-lamé suit with two more costume changes. But you could take the act two ways.

“Think of the term ‘piss-elegant,’” says Dennis McBride, director of the Nevada State Museum and author of Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State. In certain parts of the country, at least, “flashy things and elaborate things were at some point equated with good taste and manners and wealth,” he notes.

“You think of Liberace with his elaborate piano and the candelabra. ... As a gay person I look at that and say, ‘This is really funny.’ But in those days, someone could look at Liberace’s house and say, ‘Wow, he’s got really great taste.’ It appeals two different ways, depending on the audience. And that can be very deliberate. Which in Liberace’s case, I think it was.”

Sontag’s essay never mentions Las Vegas, but gets tantalizingly close when she writes, “(t)he hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Along with that near-literal description of the Lido de Paris or Folies Bergere showgirls, another Sontag note could be speaking to those shows’ flair for onstage chariot races or sinking luxury liners: “Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. ... When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish.”

Straight men ogled the topless showgirls in extravaganzas created mostly by gay men, “who always made sure there was a subtext of some kind,” McBride says. “They couldn’t appeal to the gay community directly, but it was obvious to us.” Yet the shows that were once the Strip’s pride and joy evolved into a different kind of camp: the sort of thing that David Letterman and the generation sharing his ironic perspective would mine for unintended comedy. (Remember Letterman’s TV week of cruising the town with an Elvis impersonator, etc., in 1987?) While the isolated world that was “Vegas” bought them a few more years, the dancing chorus boys in top hats and showgirls top-heavy with eyelashes and plumage eventually died slow deaths, victims of budget-wrangling and indecision about how — or if it was even feasible — to update them.

But the same could be said of most of Las Vegas in the 1980s. “Even though homosexuals have been its vanguard, Camp taste is much more than homosexual taste,” Sontag wrote. And the most heterosexual man on earth, Tom Jones, did his lascivious thing in painted-on pants for a sealed biosphere of middle-aged women, until the British pop ensemble Art of Noise introduced his version of Prince’s “Kiss” to the outside world in 1988. At that point, Jones could only shrug, wink, and let us think it was all a joke if that’s what we wanted to think.

Siegfried & Roy went the other direction in the 1990s. At first, the Beyond Belief magic duo reflected the showgirl revues from which they sprang. “I remember being taken away with the tights that they wore and their huge bulges, which sort of went away later on, when the ’70s ended,” McBride notes. The duo’s 1990 makeover at The Mirage was overseen by Cats and Les Miserables production designer John Napier, trading the sequins for Wagnerian opera. It was a smart move that anticipated the arrival of Cirque du Soleil three years later.

Gradually, camp returned in increasing doses, from the deceptively underplayed drag host Eydie (Christopher Kenney) in Cirque’s Zumanity to the wall-to-wall romp of Opium. Atomic Saloon Show debuts on the heels of Blanc de Blanc, an Australian import whose arrival coincided with the SLS changing its name back to the Sahara. Themed around its front-of-stage hot tub and barely dressed cast, the revue has already been pegged “alt-cabaret” in other markets. It’s as good a name as any for this growing subgenre on the Strip, where Blanc de Blanc could have been elevator-pitched as a cross between Zumanity and Absinthe. “It goes from a bit sophisticated to a bit crazy,” creator Scott Maidment says.

Blanc de Blanc

Crude jokes spew along with liberal amounts of bubbly courtesy of Spencer Novich, whose spindly frame is played for comic contrast with the ripped gym bod of his cohost, known as Monsieur Romeo. At one point, Novich and two women do a “naked dance” that appears to leave him no choice but to, uh, tuck — and squeeze his legs shut — to avoid a full-frontal display. But is it camp? Or just crass? Blanc de Blanc may finesse its humor over time, but the mood swings lead to a deeper appreciation of the tone Spiegelworld strikes and sustains from the get-go.

Blanc’s nudity is “not actually titillating. It’s comedy,” Maidment says. Atomic producer Mollison agrees that this new wave of Las Vegas shows is the next step for an audience now bored by conventional topless revues: “I’m not interested in the kind of, you know, nude show, where someone comes out, ‘Oooh, take my top off. ... Oooh, sexy.’ I’m not interested in that unless it’s funny.” And with 180 seats (230 counting the booths), Atomic is a low-stakes test. “I predict this show will either be a disaster and close in four weeks, or you are not going to be able to get a ticket. It’s either one or the other.”

It’s also a test of Sontag, and the question of whether camp still works if it tries too hard. “Pure Camp is always naive,” she wrote. “Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying.”