Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

Want to know what's happening in Las Vegas? You've come to the right place.

Each week you can come here to get the latest news, the juiciest gossip, and the best reviews for the most fabulous city in the world, Las Vegas. Hey... it says "fabulous" right on the welcome sign!

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The Countdown: Top 10 Vegas News Stories of the Week

10. Grand Bazaar Opens; Crystal Starburst, Um, Bursts?

The new shopping complex in front of Bally's kind of opened last week. When fully occupied the Grand Bazaar Shops will have 150 or so stores and restaurants but only a fraction of those are actually open at this time. Still, it's a much more intersting front entrance to the hotel than it used to be. As far as the Crystal Starburst attraction from Swarovski? Well, although I haven't seen it live myself yet, the video makes it look a little disappointing and not just because it's not, as the name would suggest, a stripper. Basically every night at midnight the giant crystal sphere lights up while undulating colors swarm across the roofs of the shops and music plays. Let's just say it's not Times Square. Here's a video with some shots of the shops as well:

Read more about the Grand Bazaar Shops.

9. End of the Riviera Set

If you're interested in being around for the end of an era, you should bookmark Monday, May 4th at noon on your calendar. That's the specific day and time that the 60 year old Riviera hotel will close its doors forever. If you want to go even further, you can stay there on its last night. Rooms are still available for Sunday, May 3 for as low as $71 (plus a $17 resort fee... yep, they are charging one up to the bitter end). The hotel is being torn down to make room for an expansion of the convention center. The photo to the left is from The Riv's Twitter feed showing the groundbreaking of the hotel, which opened in 1955. Read more about the history of The Riviera.

8. More Westgate Updates

A couple of weeks ago I ran a story about all the changes coming to the former Las Vegas Hilton, now known as the Westgate. New rooms, new restaurants, and a new Elvis attraction (which you can read more about below) were on the list. Last week the hotel sent out a more comprehensive list of the revamps with dates attached, which include a full pool deck renovation with grassy areas and fire pits set to debut in March; a new steakhouse also in March; a new spa and health club opening in April; and a massive revamp to their race and sports book (the largest in the world) that will turn it into a three-level stadium style experience complete with its own bar and grill and private club booths. That'll debut this fall. Read more about the Westgate.

7. Mob Museum Included in "Casino" Tours

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the movie "Casino," which dramatized an era in Las Vegas when organized crime controlled many of the city's casinos. Beginning March 18, The Mob Museum will be featured in a "Casino" tour of Vegas, hosted by former mobster Frank Cullotta. The two-hour tour will begin at The Mob Museum with a special private tour by former FBI Special Agent Dennis Arnoldy and Mob historian Robert George Allen then move to a bus tour that will go to the house featured in the film, the site of the Frankie "Blue" death scene, Bertha's robbery site, and more, all the while hearing stories about the events that transpired in the film. The tour will happen only once per month. For reservations call 702-677-9015. There's a website but it appears to not be working so better to call for details for now or check with the Mob Museum. Read the review of the Mob Museum.

6. Smith Center Unveils Broadway Series

If you haven't been to the Smith Center in Las Vegas you really are missing out on one of the best performing arts venues in the country. Maybe a little Great White Way will change your mind The facility, located near Downtown, has just unveiled its 2015-2016 Broadway series lineup, which includes a return of "The Book of Mormon" plus "Dirty Dancing," "Bridges of Madison County," "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder," "Beauty and the Beast," "Elf the Musical," "Ragtime," "Riverdance," "Idaho," and the classic "Cabaret." Tickets are only available now for season holders but individual show tickets will come online later this year. I highly recommend subscribing to the center's newsletter so you can be kept informed of all of the shows and events they put on there. Read the review of The Smith Center.

5. Cosmopolitan Dots the Eyes

The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas celebrated the Year of the Ram yesterday, Sunday, February 22, with a traditional "dotting of the eyes" ceremony and parade through the casino. The ritual involves painting dots on the eyes of the Chinese dragon, signifying an awakening of the animal, which is said to bring good fortune (or at least prevent misfortune depending on which interpretation you read). The new owners of the hotel are hoping it works and that the Cosmo might actually turn a profit this year. If it did, it would be the first time since it opened. Read the review of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

4. Olivia Newton John Releases Vegas CD

Vegas headliner Olivia Newton-John is celebrating her 50th year in entertainment and in honor of that will be releasing a 2-CD set of her greatest hits recorded live at the Flamingo. 22 of her biggest songs will be included like Physical, I Honestly Love You, Hopelessly Devoted To You, Xanadu, and more. The discs will drop on March 3, the same date she returns to the Flamingo for another three weeks' worth of shows. Read the review of the Olivia Newton-John sho.

3. JLo or No? Rumor Update

A couple of months ago there were breathless rumors that Jennifer Lopez was thisclose to signing a headliner deal at Planet Hollywood, taking over the Axis theater when Britney wasn't performing. Then the rumor shifted to JLo headlining at Caesars to fill in some of the dates left open by Celine Dion's absence. Then the rumors got squashed and the whispers said they couldn't come to a financial arrangement that made sense for everyone. Now the rumors are back, kicked up by Robin Leach who is insisting that the original idea of a JLo residency at Planet Hollywood are true, that it'll be announced this spring, and that it'll start early next year. We'll see what the rumors say next month. Read the review of Planet Hollywood.

2. Sugar Factory Closes

What is going on, Vegas? Why do you have to keep closing all of my favorite restaurants? The delightful Sugar Factory at Paris Las Vegas has closed, replaced by a generic 24 hour café, the exact same thing that happened at SLS Las Vegas with the fantastic Griddle Café. The adjoining sweet shop also shuttered but apparently a new one is opening at The Grand Bazaar Shops so at least that's something. And as long as we're on the topic of favorite restaurants closing...

1. KGB To Close

Guess I'm going to have to find a new favorite burger joint. KGB at Harrah's, the best in town as far as I'm concerned, is closing its doors after the hotel and the chef behind it, Kerry Simon, decided not to renew the lease. At least part of the move has to do with Simon's health. He has been battling a rare neurological disorder known as Multiple System Atrophy, which is similar in effect to Parkinson's, and it has reportedly progressed to the point where he is unable to walk, speak, or eat on his own. The chef's Simon restaurant at The Palms is also closing but his Carson Kitchen in Downtown Las Vegas is staying put. Read the review of Carson Kitchen.

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Elvis Is Back in the Building

From 1969 through 1976, Elvis Presley performed hundreds of shows at the hotel that was known then as The International or Las Vegas Hilton. He even lived on the 30th floor of the building for several months of the year.

Starting in April, The King will be returning to his old stomping grounds with the debut of "Graceland Presents Elvis: The Exhibition, The Show, The Experience at the same hotel, now known as Westgate.

Done in partnership with the Graceland estate, the new attraction will take over the area that used to house the Star Trek exhibition and ride. 28,000 square-feet of space will be devoted to memorabilia and artifacts from the late singer's career including costumes, furniture, jewelry, and more. Many of the items will be things that have never had room to display at Graceland in Memphis and some of it is specific to his time in Las Vegas. Examples include a contract to perform at The International written on a tablecloth and a a two-story high sign advertising his 1956 concerts at The New Frontier.

The exhibit will also have interactive features and video including a 26-minute film retrospective of Elvis' best performances.

A series of tribute shows will take over the main theater at the hotel where Elvis performed. The first is called the Vegas Experience and features impersonator Martin Fontaine, a full band, back-up singers, and sets designed to emulate the original production. They are even planning on redesigning the venue, getting rid of the theater style seating and taking it back to classic showroom layout with tables and semi-circular booths.

The hotel will also debut a wedding chapel managed by the Graceland team. And yes, you'll be able to get married by an Elvis impersonator.

The exhibition will be open daily from 10am to 10pm. Tickets cost $22 and are on sale now.

The show will run Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30pm and Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Tickets range from $49-$80 and are also on sale now.

You can find the link to the ticket site on the Graceland Presents Elvis page on Vegas4Visitors.com.

Both the show and the exhibit debut April 23, 59 years to the day when Elvis first performed in Vegas at The New Frontier.

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Updated Show Review: Britney Spears

When Britney Spears opened her much ballyhooed residency at Planet Hollywood in late 2013, much of the world was waiting for it to be a spectacular failure. People pointed to her sometimes erratic behavior, her singing ability (or perceived lack thereof), and Vegas' fickle audiences as warning signs for impending disaster.

Fast forward to now: Britney Spears has become the top grossing concert act in Las Vegas, regularly selling out concerts and bringing in huge revenue both for herself and the hotel in which she performs.

How did that happen?

Part of it is a shift in Vegas that has turned the city into a nightclub destination, he bulk of the top 20 grossing nightclubs in the country are all be in Las Vegas and cumulatively they ring up more than a billion dollars in revenue. They lure a younger crowd of mostly 20- and 30-somethings and although it's not clear where they are getting their money, they certainly have a lot of it and are willing to spend it on ways to amuse themselves in Las Vegas. This crowd fits perfectly into Britney's target demographic and while there are a lot of different nightclubs competing for that audience's attention, there are precious few shows that offer much appeal to them.

But the bigger part of it, really, is that Britney knows how to put on spectacle.

Love her, loathe her, or not care enough to have an opinion one way or another, it is impossible to deny Britney Spears' impact on the pop music scene over the last 15 years. She was the best-selling female artist between 2000 and 2009 and has moved more than 100 million albums since her career started. Her hits like "...Baby One More Time," "Oops! I Did it Again," and "Toxic" are widely considered to be among the best pure pop songs ever produced and her concert tours were usually sold-out, stadium-sized affairs worldwide.

Although certainly not the musical powerhouse she was back in the early 2000s, Britney was the top grossing female entertainer again in 2012, so not only does she have relevancy to an audience of people who were teenagers in 1999 but to young adults who are heading to nightclubs today. That those are the same people is what some would call synergy.

Spears started what was originally billed as a two-year residency at Planet Hollywood, performing at least 50 shows a year through 2015 as a North American exclusive, which means if you want to see her in concert you'll need to either come to Vegas or go to another continent. The original run of shows has been such a huge, sold-out success that more have been added and the gig is likely to be extended for another couple of years.

The shows are being held in the revamped Axis Theater, which dates all the way back to 1974 when it debuted as the Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts. When that hotel was imploded, the theater was preserved and the new Aladdin was built around it. Now the theater has been updated with a couple of dance floor/pit areas built into the stage, some nightclub style VIP booths, and updated theater seating throughout the rest of the room. It's nice enough to look at but the drink servers heading up and down the aisles to handle the bottle service tables down front are frequent blockers to the on stage action for anyone sitting adjacent to the aisles they tread often.

So what about the concert? Well, it's exactly what you would expect a Britney Spears concert to be: big, spectacle sized entertainment with lots of complicated staging, special effects, and dancing. Two dozen of her songs are covered including the aforementioned mega hits like "Toxic" and "Oops" plus "Circus," "Slave 4U," "Boys," "Crazy," "Work Bitch," "Womanizer," "Scream and Shout," and more.

According to reports, there have been some changes since the show first debuted but a second viewing about a year after it opened seemed the same to me. If there were differences, they were subtle.

In some instances, that's a good thing. The visuals are impressive. Various set pieces include a video and confetti-based snowstorm; Britney flying in wearing massive angel wings; an S&M themed dungeon that included rain falling from the ceiling; and some tricky video panels that emulate mirrors. What most of them had to do with the actual songs they were backing is probably up for debate. "Toxic," for instance, took place on and around a massive tree with a jungle background and Spears flying through the air from its branches. Is this the "poison paradise" mentioned in the lyrics or just a cool thing to look at? Probably best to not look for deeper meaning here.

Instead, look at the dancers, who bust their way expertly through some of the best choreography currently being performed in Las Vegas. This is serious, world-class stuff here and the troop is executing it with precision and passion. Britney acquits herself well in the middle of all of it, doing simplified versions of what the dancers around her are doing but with enough attitude and performance style that it makes up for the fact that she isn't 18 anymore.

What you don't get is much in the way of singing, although anyone who goes to a Britney Spears concert and expects to hear her actually sing has probably not been paying attention for the last 15 years. According to the press material she is "singing to track," meaning she is not lip-syncing per se, but rather singing live over a recording. Feel free to split that particular hair any old way you want to.

You also don't get much in the way of spontaneity. It's all slick and well-produced, with every moment rehearsed down to the microsecond. There is no gratuitous chatting with the audience; in fact she didn't say much at all in between songs and what she did sounded like it was part of the script. For me that created a huge disconnect, making it impossible to get drawn in on anything more than a toe-tapping level.

I was also a little disappointed in some of the arrangements. The crisp syncopation of songs like "Slave 4U" and "Me Against the Music" was smoothed out by the live band backing, making it feel almost lounge-ready instead of calling you to the club. And the first half of "Toxic" was done as a dreamy, ethereal ballad before busting loose into the uptempo swing. Considering the fact that the song is only three minutes long, that seems like a strange choice.

In the end, though, it is not a Cirque-level substance or a Celine-style musicality that is important here, it is the spectacle that matters most. This is live entertainment for the nightclub set, all flash and sound and fury that dissipates the moment you step off the dance floor. On that level the show is a success.

And obviously it's a success in other ways as well. I, for one, hope she is sitting in her home reading those predictions of doom and gloom and laughing her ass off while she sits on a giant pile of money.

Britney Spears
Planet Hollywood
3667 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
855-234-7469
website
$59-$500
Show Schedule Varies; Check Website

Vegas4Visitors.com Grade: B

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Updated Attraction Review: Madame Tussaud's Las Vegas

When I first visited Madame Tussaud's at The Venetian, I must admit that I left feeling more creeped out than entertained. Sure, we can blame part of it on 1953's "House of Wax" with Vincent Price, which will automatically make you view wax figures with suspicion and dread, but the bigger part of it was that there wasn't much more to the attraction than a bunch of statues standing around.

Over the last few years, the Vegas Tussaud's has been, well, Vegas-a-fied adding more spectacle and show to proceedings that I think make it a much more enjoyable experience overall. Overhauls, expansions, and new interactive exhibits have turned it into a fun, kitschy bit of Vegas entertainment.

For the uninitiated, Madame Tussaud was a real person, having risen to fame for her lifelike wax figures during the French revolution. She was forced to prove her allegiance to France by creating death masks for executed French nobles. Charming and not at all creepy, right?

For the last 200 or so years, the wax figures have moved from royalty to celebrity, with museums in London, Amsterdam, New York, Hong Kong, and this one in Las Vegas.

The 30,000 square-foot facility is divided up into several themed-rooms with celebrities from all walks of life featured throughout. Although the exact people immortalized rotate periodically, figure upon seeing celebrities from movies, television, music, sports, and even politics.

Some of the figures are so good that you want to touch them - which you can. They encourage you to poke and prod and take pictures along the way. I admit to very hesitantly touching a few of the figures because I was sure they were going to leap up and strangle me and encase me in wax so I could be displayed... sorry... got carried away there.

It's the interactive exhibits that really make the cover charge more palatable. You can put yourself in the set of "The Hangover" with Bradley Cooper and Zack Galifinakas, complete with a trashed hotel room, a wedding chapel, and a surprise if you peek in the bathroom; cup J-Lo's, umm, "assets" and get a blushing reaction from her; become a guest on "The Jerry Springer Show;" and even do the iconic "Smooth Criminal" "lean" with some help from a well-placed green-screen device.

A full Vegas themed room has everyone from Siegfried & Roy to Better Midler to the Rat Pack and Elvis, of course.

One of the most popular recent additions is dedicated to Marvel Super Heroes like The Avengers, complete with a giant Hulk smashing through a wall and a 4-D theater showing an animated movie that puts Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man in a battle to save earth once again. It includes water, wind, and shaking special effects to heighten the typical 3-D movie experience and while it may not break any new ground, it's a fun distraction with a few surprises.

These exhibits also change periodically but it gives you an idea of what you can expect.

At $30 a pop, it's a little pricey for wax, but it's worth noting that you can get 20% off your ticket price if you buy online in advance. The website link is above.

I personally miss the haunted house section they used to have but that's just my personal taste and the newer attractions will more than make up for its absence for most visitors.

So go, enjoy the silly fun, and don't worry about what Professor Jarrod was doing in "House of Wax." It's just a movie... isn't it?

Madame Tussaud's Las Vegas
Venetian
3377 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
702-862-7800
website
$29.95 adults
$19.95 kids 4-12
Sun-Thu 10am-9:30pm
Fri-Sat 10am-10:30pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B+

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Shopping Review: Downtown Summerlin

I still don't totally get the idea of outdoor shopping experiences in Las Vegas. For those who haven't been paying attention, it gets really hot here in the summer and often very chilly during the winter. Why people think that being out in, you now, weather when they could be enjoying climate controlling air condition is beyond me, but I guess that's why I don't design shopping centers.

I bring this up because of Las Vegas' latest mega-shopping complex, Downtown Summerlin. Located in the suburban neighborhood on the west edge of town, right next door to Red Rock Resort, the long delayed facility finally opened in late 2014. It's designed as an urban downtown, with buildings full of shops, restaurants, and entertainment on the ground floor and office space above in some cases. There are drivable and walkable streets throughout with curbside meter parking plus big lots surrounding it on all sides where you can park for free.

It's similar in concept to Town Square, the village themed shopping center just south of The Strip, but whereas that one looks like small-town America, this one looks more like medium-sized city America. The buildings here feel more "real" - if you got dropped, blindfolded, into the middle of it, you might think you were in some city's downtown, albeit one that is probably too nice and clean for reality purposes.

There are about 150 stores and restaurants so far, a lot of which are pretty familiar to anyone who has been in a mall lately. Dillard's and Macy's have big anchor stores while smaller outlets are filled by brands like American Eagle, Banana Republic, Bath & Body Works, Ethan Allen, Forever 21, Gap, GUESS, Hot Topic, J. Jill, Lane Bryant, L'occitane, Michael Kors, Nordstrom Rack, Old Navy, Sephora, Skechers, Sur La Table, True Religion, and Victoria's Secret (which apparently is required by law in every American shopping center). There are quite a few independent and local stores as well so it isn't all national chains.

There is a long list of dining options including a full Trader Joe's grocery store, a Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill, California Pizza Kitchen, Red Robin, and several fast food options including Capriotti's, Earl of Sandwich, Five Guys Burgers, and Panda Express. There are also several local eateries including a branch of the popular MTO Cafe.

A five screen cinema represents for the entertainment portion of the program and, as mentioned, Red Rock Resort is next door where you'll find a casino, another 16 screen movie complex including an IMAX theater, a bowling alley, and more.

All of this is the first phase. They are planning on more than doubling the size of the facility in the coming years and adding a residential component.

So it's a pretty cool facility with a lot of popular stores and eateries, but most Vegas visitors will probably never actually visit it. Why? For the same reason they don't often visit Red Rock Resort - located about 12 miles west of The Strip, it's just too far for most visitors. If you have a car at your disposal and traffic is in your favor, you could probably make it in about 20 minutes, but most tourists don't and traffic usually isn't. To be honest, the selection of shopping and dining options here isn't anything radically different than you can find at malls closer to where you'll probably be staying, including Town Square. The prices, while certainly cheaper than what you'll pay at similar stores on The Strip, are not so much cheaper that it would make it worth the while for most folks.

This is one that should be reserved for the explorers among you - those that have a car and want to get out and experience more of Las Vegas than is contained on the four mile long strip of hotels and casinos where most people spend the bulk of their time. If that's you, check it out on your next trip. For everyone else, go to the Fashion Show or Town Square and you'll save yourself a lot of time.

Downtown Summerlin
North/West of The Strip
1980 Festival Plaza Dr.
Las Vegas, NV 89135
702-832-1000
website
Mon-Sat 10am-9pm
Sun 11am-7pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B+

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