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Stage shows making a comeback at AC casinos

March 6, 2011 10:18:59 AM PST
On the stage, six leggy showgirls cavorted in shimmery black-sequined bras and skirts that were little more than ambitious panties. They twirled plumes of large black feathers in a Rockette-style kick line as one of them sang "Bye-Bye Blackbird." (Who cares that they were ostrich feathers? And really, who was even looking at the feathers?)

This casino spectacle, titled "Moonshine Follies," was unfolding on a stage not in Las Vegas, which is synonymous with the elaborate stage production, but in Atlantic City, where such shows died out in the 1990s after a comparatively brief East Coast run.

Now, the nation's second-largest gambling resort is taking a page from its past: the stage show is coming back in Atlantic City.

Casino executives see the shows as a valuable marketing tool, and a cheaper option than top-name entertainers that play for a night or two before moving on. And customers see the shows as a welcome return to the Atlantic City they once knew and loved - almost like theatrical comfort food.

"We're only here for a limited time, and we wanted to be sure to see a show," said Nancy Harper, a music teacher from Chrisman, Ill., who was in Atlantic City with her husband to watch "Moonshine Follies" at Resorts Casino Hotel.

"It was excellent. The entire production was very professional.

I was very impressed," she said. "The costume changes - how do they do them so quickly?"

Seven of Atlantic City's 11 casinos now have regular stage shows or will be rolling them out in coming months.

"You get five or six nights a week of entertainment versus one, for the same price or less," said Don Marrandino, eastern division president of Caesar's Entertainment, which owns four Atlantic City casinos. "We'll get more people into the places with these shows and create new excitement. That's our leg up on Pennsylvania and surrounding markets."

"Moonshine Follies" costs Resorts about $50,000 a week to produce. Many of the tickets are given away free as "comps," or complimentary inducements to customers to choose Resorts as opposed to the competition.

"It brings bodies in the door," said Resorts president Dennis Gomes. He said the show averages 500 people a night on weekdays, and fills the 1,300-seat theater on weekends.

"The value of those 500 people coming in for a show is being felt from a gaming and food and beverage revenue standpoint," he said. "We do pretty well with it. And it creates a sense of excitement and energy for the customers."

Gomes artfully created some pre-opening buzz for "Moonshine Follies" with a billboard advertising the show on the Atlantic City Expressway, featuring the barely-clad derriere of one of the show's dancers. When motorists complained, a state agency that owns the land on which the billboard sits threatened to take it down, but Resorts got a court order temporarily protecting the billboard.

The show delivers on the billboard's promise. It starts out with a row of dancers in flapper costumes hoofing it to Roaring '20s-style jazz as a live band plays onstage. Clad in black dresses and white feather boas, the dancers wear elbow-length black gloves and black feathers sticking out of sequin headbands. As the show progresses, the clothes melt away. As a male vocalist croons "It Had To Be You," the dancers wear the beaded thongs made famous by the billboard, silver sequined bras and high heels.

And lest the ladies feel left out, the revue's two male dancers shed their shirts on several numbers as well. Toward the end of the show, on "Fascinating Rhythm," the two men spin and twirl in black hats, black suspenders and tight purple pants, looking for all the world like they just went AWOL from an Adam Lambert concert.

"I go to Broadway and I go to Vegas to see shows, and I loved this," said Ephraim Carmona, 58, of Yonkers, N.Y. "The costumes and the vocals were excellent, very energetic, and the band is just great."

When casino gambling debuted in New Jersey in 1978, Resorts was the only legal casino outside Nevada. New Jersey officials passed a law requiring live nightly entertainment in an attempt to help ensure that Atlantic City casinos would be full-fledged resorts and not just slot-machine warehouses.

But that law was eventually repealed, leaving it to the market to determine what was profitable and what was not. As a result, many of the casinos stopped hosting their own house shows, focusing on bringing in big stars for a one- or two-night stand.

That worked for a while, when Atlantic City was the only game in town unless you wanted to hop a plane to Nevada. But the resort lost its East Coast monopoly when casinos opened in Connecticut.

The advent of casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania in late 2006 touched off a decline that still plagues Atlantic City more than four years later. The resort has lost nearly a third of its business since then, falling from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $3.6 billion in 2010.

Nowadays, any opportunity to bring more people through the casino doors is being pursued.

The Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort has "Boardwalk Follies" running through April 3. The show centers on a singer and several variety acts, including an aerial act called "The Aerial Sisters." The Hilton is seeking a new source of customers - especially cash-paying ones - as it attempts to sell itself, having stopped paying its mortgage two years ago.

The Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort has a long-running musical variety show "Almost Angels," featuring a lingerie-clad female vocal group reminiscent of The Pussycat Dolls.

The Tropicana Casino and Resort will present "Best Of Broadway" next month, while Harrah's Resort Atlantic City will feature the a cappella group Straight No Chaser for 10 weeks during the summer. Caesars Atlantic City will feature Human Nature and a salute to Motown, followed by Chazz Palminteri and his one-man show "A Bronx Tale," patterned after the hit movie of the same name.

Bally's Atlantic City will host "The Price Is Right," and later in the summer, "Legends In Concert," the popular celebrity tribute act.

Gomes, the Resorts president, sums up the appeal of the casino stage show succinctly.

"You'll see the most beautiful rear ends you've ever seen in your life," he said.

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