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Best of the City 2020: Arts & Entertainment

Lady Gaga
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Lady Gaga

Whoa. It’s Best of the City 2020. Sorry. We’re a bit frozen with awe by the momentousness of it all — the compressed hype packed into the “best” premise, the gravid ta-da of the year 2020. Indeed, what better way to kick off a new decade than by celebrating Las Vegas’ most excellent people, food, places, and experiences? Happy best year!

Best New Show

Atomic Saloon Show

When it comes to new shows, people vote with their wallets: Fuerza Bruta, Postmodern Jukebox, and Blanc de Blanc didn’t live to see a New Year’s confetti drop. Three that so far survive seem awfully familiar. Hans Klok is Siegfried without Roy; Celestia is a Cirque knockoff; and Atomic Saloon Show is from Spiegelworld, the dirty jokes and acrobatics factory that brought you Absinthe and Opium. But you can’t knock a winning formula, or a festive barroom atmosphere. And the raunchy Atomic bits you will whisper about the next day are a lot easier to remember than anything in Celestia. MW Venetian,

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Best Variety Show


It’s nostalgic and symbolic to revisit the beginning of modern-era Vegas entertainment. But don’t blame your treacherous memory when Cirque du Soleil’s dreamy spectacle doesn’t play out quite the way you recall it. Cirque marked last year’s 25th anniversary with subtle but substantial changes meant to keep the show dust-free and exciting to the parents who saw it as kids and are now taking their own.  MW  TI,


Best Show Deserving a Return Visit

Le R êve

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Most long-running shows battle inertia, or may be superstitious about messing with a winning formula (hello, Blue Man Group). But change has been a constant with Le Rêve since it opened in 2005. That’s partly because it was a pet obsession of former resort chairman Steve Wynn, and partly because, well, it needed to. Originally perceived as an O knockoff, Le Rêve’s derivative elements have faded amid tweaks that make this water show a bolder, sexier, and more immediate experience. Even if Le Rêve has settled down since Steve Wynn’s disgraced departure, you’ve likely missed, at the very least, the new music and costumes added in a 2017 makeover. MW

Wynn Las Vegas,


Best Residency

Lady Gaga

Vegas’ newfound residency renaissance ascended to previously unthinkable heights when the queen of the Little Monsters graced our city with not one but two unique experiences. The flash of Lady Gaga’s outrageous pop spectacle seems tailor-made for the glamour of Las Vegas, while her stripped-down jazz performances buck the formula outright and reshape how our city shines by changing what is possible in the showroom. Her impact on Vegas entertainment will undoubtedly reverberate for years to come. CB
Park MGM,

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Best Near Miss


Sure, you could question spending millions to put a cheesy action flick onstage. But not since KÀ has Cirque du Soleil so challenged the physical boundaries of theater. And for at least a half hour, it’s exciting to see a slam-bang, cheeky action-noir penned by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Machete) come to life. See it in that spirit — or simply with spirits — and you will root for them to fix the rest: Over-reliance on video, characters you never come to care about, and a climax that devolves into pointless motorcycle stunts. Even if they don’t fix it, you’ll still be talking about that freaky torture scene. MW



Best New Voice

Sonia Barcelona

What we like most about Sonia Barcelona is her ambition to grow and willingness to create art and experience not through her music, but beyond it. Music may be the central vehicle for her creation, but Barcelona doesn’t limit herself to it. Not only did 2019 gave us her full-length release Bitter Melon, it also saw her inaugural Farside Wonderfest, a music, culture, and wellness event, and features from Vice and NPR. CB


Best Intimate Showcase

Sarah McLachlan — An Intimate Evening of Songs and Storytelling

The Canadian singer-songwriter followed the anti-Vegas path of an even bigger ’90s star, Garth Brooks, who was the first to strip the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas down to a bare stage for a biographical, almost solo acoustic showcase. If McLachlan’s April debut (she returns February 19, 21-22) wasn’t as dramatically resonant as, say, Springsteen on Broadway, the singer’s earthy rapport in contrast with her ethereal vocals still proves the format can speak to you in a way that spectacle can’t. MW

Wynn Las Vegas,


Best DJ


For the city that made the headlining DJ king, Vegas’ homegrown crown is still surprisingly open for claim — although 2019 launched Hekler on that flight path with an impressive streak. He performed at EDC, Bonnaroo, Lost Lands, and Hard Summer, in addition to tours of Europe and Asia. While not yet one of the household names that litter Strip billboards, Hekler is snowballing with national momentum and is poised to rule the local scene, then burst beyond it. CB


Best Genre Defier

Zack Gray

If the unfettered availability of digital music has killed the genre, then Zack Gray should perform the dirge at its wake. Swimming among R&B, soul, electronic, and pop music is where Gray finds depth. His music has caught the attention of tastemakers in and beyond Vegas, with features in Onestowatch and Earmilk, plus a slot at last year’s Life Is Beautiful. CB


Best Musical Trend

Music Festivals

No, you’re not crazy, there really is a new music festival in town every week (almost), and the expansion shows no signs of slowing. From genre-bound niche gatherings like Viva, Psycho, and Punk Rock Bowling to the mass congregations of I Heart Radio and Life Is Beautiful to newbies such as Day N Vegas and Intersect, Vegas has become Festival City, USA. And why not? Could there be a place better equipped to host throngs of hedonistic partiers on the reg? CB


Best Local Filmmaker

Brandon Christensen

After building buzz on the indie horror scene with his 2017 debut feature Still/Born, Vegas-based filmmaker Christensen returned with Z, another horror movie about familial anxieties. Shot in Christensen’s native Canada with recognizable stars including Keegan Connor Tracy and Stephen McHattie, Z is a creepy and unsettling story about pain and trauma passing from one generation to the next. It played at 2019’s Sin City Horror Fest and will be available to stream later this year


Best Film Festival

Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival

The longest-running film festival in Vegas (its 19th edition takes place beginning January 9), the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival has a history of showcasing both artistically challenging and crowd-pleasing films from around the world, demonstrating the range of work related to Jewish culture and history. As festival director Joshua Abbey has quipped, “You don’t have to be ‘chosen’ to attend,” meaning that this local cultural gem deserves attention from cinephiles of all faiths. JB


Best Use of Las Vegas on TV


In real life, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling spent its entire four-year run in the 1980s based in Las Vegas, but the Netflix series loosely inspired by the classic wrestling promotion didn’t get to Vegas until its recent third season. The creators made up for lost time by delving deeply into the minutiae of Vegas history, with references to classic show producers, local publications, and the UNLV library, treating it all with a mix of snark and reverence. JB


Best Use of Las Vegas in Movies

Gloria Bell

Most of Sebastian Lelio’s affecting, exuberant drama about a middle-aged woman (the fantastic Julianne Moore) rediscovering her self-confidence takes place in LA, but for one lovely stretch, the story moves to Las Vegas, as Gloria and her feckless boyfriend (John Turturro) take a disastrous vacation — they fight, and he heads back to L.A. without telling her — that turns into an empowering experience for her. Lelio captures the rush and the comedown of Vegas, viewing it from the same generous, sympathetic perspective as he does the title character. JB


Best Actor

Mike Vargovich

The kind of energy that you need to sing through two hours of Green Day music while the sound system in the small, old building where you’re performing is taking occasional craps and you’re playing the main character who holds the whole story together — that’s the energy Mike Vargovich brought to  American Idiot at Majestic Repertory Theatre. It wasn’t his first rodeo; Vargovich has been in several other Majestic performances and done some work elsewhere, too. But it was riveting. Here’s to whatever he’s got on tap after Krampus! HK


Best Actress

Valerie Carpenter Bernstein

Valerie Carpenter Bernstein was in her first movie (Lottery!) more than 35 years ago, so she shouldn’t have anything left to prove. Which may explain how she was able to leave it all on the floor night after night, and come back and do it again the following day, for three weeks of  August: Osage County at A Public Fit. The Tracy Letts story starts bad and gets progressively worse until it’s absolutely devastating, mainly due to Violet Weston, the misanthropic matriarch Bernstein played. So the actor has to hold it all together, make it all fall apart, and then trample on the spoils. Bernstein’s been around the Vegas scene for a while now, popping up in a variety of Downtown productions, but in this one it felt like she finally met her match. Good for us. HK


Best Mural

Butterflies by Mantra

For this year’s Life is Beautiful festival, the JustKids creative house pulled in street artist Mantra to create one of his signature, building-size, trompe l’oeil butterfly cases. The super-realistic mural expresses the idea of specimens caught, pinned down — living beauty captured in its prime and preserved for the pleasure of examination and study. The stunning winged specimens recall the vanitas of Dutch still-life and sound the vivid notes of memento mori. It’s at Ninth and Fremont streets; you can ponder it while having a drink on the patio at Atomic Liquors. JK


Best Artist

David Baird

Thin rods of interwoven balsa wood sculpture rise up in a trembling three-foot tower. Artist David Baird’s small monument to Babel, titled “Conceit,” acknowledges human audacity, but at the same time, the possibility of withdrawing the slender beams from position, one-by-one, comments on the precariousness of social structures, the fragility of humanity itself.

Baird has firsthand experience with vulnerable constructions, having worked on numerous low-income architectural projects, such as recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina and low-income neighborhoods in Las Vegas.

The sculptures of his Babel series grow carefully upward, each an intricate structure of delicate limbs presenting a unique effort to aspire to a higher plane of existence. Rather than stopping after one thwarted attempt, Baird’s work reminds us new towers are constructed all the time — all of humanity is one ongoing construction, continuously added to, modified, at times breaking down, always striving toward improvement.

The serial sculpture works are a product of Baird’s daily journal practice of creating three visual entries. Each journal is a meditative act pulling together a limited number of materials, musing upon compositional space and possible configurations. Baird’s journals and works invoke a sense of mindfulness and an intuitive search for balance and order. JK


Let Us Count the Ways

Best Local Film Moguls

Sonny and Michael Mahal

1 Some titles the brothers have produced through their Mahal Empire production company (all direct to VOD/DVD): 30 Girls 30 Days, Party Bus to Hell, Art of the Dead, Attack of the Unknown, Bridge of the Doomed.

2 “Stars” the Mahals have recruited for supporting roles: Tara Reid, Richard Grieco, Michael Pare.

3 Mahal Empire films are produced largely via crowd-funding, which may be the Mahals’ greatest strength; their most recently completed campaigns, for Attack of the Unknown, raised more than $200,000.

4 The B-list celebrities, genre-movie hooks (zombies, aliens, evil paintings), and requisite amounts of nudity facilitate productions that employ local cast and crew, put Vegas locations onscreen, and, to some degree, boost our hometown film industry.

 5 Come on, who doesn’t want to see a movie called Party Bus to Hell? JB


Best Art gallery

Priscilla Fowler Fine Art

1 From the moment Priscilla hit the local art scene she has delivered the goods: gorgeous objects and conceptually rigorous exhibits.

2 Her new Main Street space. About a year ago she moved from Art Square into a spacious new storefront on Main Street, doubling the viewing area, which means double the exhibit fun: A new show in the front and a rotating display of local and national artists in the back.

3 Commitment to showing local, regional, and national artists. She collaborates with UNLV and independent artists.

4 Priscilla’s artwork. Not only does she run a great gallery, she is a pretty great artist herself. Her colorful biomorphic paintings are awesome.

5 Priscilla herself. She wants visitors to connect with the art and hook into the local art scene. She is friendly, down-to-earth, happy to answer questions or bring out works not on display. JK







Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and KNPR's State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022. In 2024, Interim CEO Favian Perez promoted Heidi to managing editor, charged with integrating the Desert Companion and State of Nevada newsroom operations.