Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Few Thoughts On Terry Fator

Upon emerging from the grand opening of the Terry Fator show at Mirage last night, friends and colleagues were eager to know -- or maybe they were just making polite conversation -- what I thought. And I was reminded once again that there is a difference between what I think about a show and what I think about a show's prospects for Vegas success.

In this case, I personally found Fator occasionally enjoyable, occasionally grating, largely cliched and unnecessarily political. And I totally see why he will do excellent business provided tourists continue to come here and spend money on such things.

For one thing, he's got a clear sense of Middle America tastes and a sharp mind for marketing. Encouraging his audiences to take photos during the show, for instance, is brilliant. Just think of the legions who will show their photos to their friends or blog audiences (see?) or Tweethearts, thereby increasing Fator's fame. Well played, sir.

That said, some thoughts on the show itself. Terry Fator is a ventriloquist who, through puppets, can do singing impersonations that are occasionally spot-on but just as often require audience willingness to go with the illusion even when their ears don't hear it. When it works, it's pretty impressive. But, like watching a Cirque performer or an opera diva, at some point the audience gets used to the presented skill -- as astonishing as it is -- and becomes more interested in the content. This is especially so when you're watching for 90 minutes and not a 4-minute bit on the TV talent show from whence he emerged.

And some of Fator's current content is, in a word, lame. As a comedian, Fator hits mostly well-beaten softballs. For whatever reason he feels Michael Jackson needs yet one more round of mockery, the sequence is all of the obvious stuff you've heard a zillion times: The weird thing with little kids, the plastic surgery, the voice, the crotch-grabbing, the light skin. How difficult is it to make an audience giggle at this stuff? If you were presenting a new show on the Strip in Vegas, would this hackneyed material be a central portion of your act?

And then, when he does stray off the standard-issue reservation, he does so for two jokes about Obama that are unnecessary and polarizing. Vegas shows normally hew to a non-political bent, making fun of presidents for their mannerisms, their voices, non-policy stuff that turns them into the butt of late-night comics like Clinton's sexual peccadillos or Dubya's syntax mangling.

It's not that President Obama ought to be above mockery, but to hold up a puppet with a scared look on its face and have Fator say, "I've been scared since Obama was elected" is weird. Sure, some sullen right-wingers eager for any pop-culture attack on the new president will roar, but is it worth alienating many others who came to hear not simplistic political humor but a turtle singing standards? (And, yes, I think that jokes about Bush's policies in otherwise non-political stand-up comedy would have been equally inappropriate on the Strip and I can't recall ever hearing any.)

It's also kind of interesting that Fator is evidently quite the conservative but he didn't have any trouble borrowing, uh, liberally from one of the most overtly leftist Broadway shows, "Avenue Q." The Q character Lucy the Slut...

...becomes Vicki the Cougar.

The basics of the character are exactly the same, most notably in the voice and swagger. Granted, most in the audience won't be familiar with the source material, but it seemed like brazen theft to those who are. (And before you point to "Avenue Q" as a lefty political show that played Vegas, might I remind you that that may very well be one reason it failed? And that it was originally intended for Broadway, not the Strip?)

So what *did* I like? I enjoyed a lot of the singing. The ventriloquism is truly impressive. And the part where Fator pulled "The Hulk" Lou Ferrigno on stage and attired him as a Cher dummy was clever and funny.

I assume that normally Fator pulls a random married guy out of the audience, but it was opening night so he had to make use of certain stars in attendance. That also included the Commodores, brought on stage for a number.

There is a point late in the show when Fator relates an anecdote about a woman who tells him his Elvis sounds nothing like the actual King. He retorts to her that that is what Elvis would have sounded like if he sang with his mouth shut. Fator uses this to disarm his critics, but it's not a fair reply. Must we simply be in awe of someone else's talent just because we can't do it? Or can we say, OK, that's an interesting skill, but I'm not buying this or that and you're getting $10 million a year to sell it to me so I'm going to let you know?

I have interviewed Fator a few times and he is a very affable fellow. I expect he'll do well, I wish him well and I will recommend the show to certain segments of my audience when it makes sense. But I also think he can do better than this and I look forward to watching this show change and alter in coming years.


Anonymous said...

I think it's human nature to make fun of our leaders. Michael Jackson, too. They may be old topics, but they are always good for a laugh.
About the puppet who has been scared since Obama was elected: I think there is a surprisingly large number of Americans who feel exactly that way, and should be made fun of. I listened to a gun show ad on the radio last week, and I was shocked to hear the announcer say something to the effect of "hurry in and buy your guns now, because our new President is going to take away your God given right to own firearms!". Fear sells, and the new President is a prime selling tool for those evil merchants of fear.
Jeff in OKC

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Michael Jackson impersonations are a Vegas repertoire pre-requisite, like alcoholism and toupees.

I figure Lou and the Commodores must have known they'd be invited on stage. Wasn't it blatant like when Ray Charles drops in on the Cosby family? Maybe more subtle like Brad Pitt on SNL.

Thanks for the insight! Ventriloquism acts are an acquired taste, but I enjoy them. Now I know where to go when I want to spend lots of money on one.