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Jeff Kutash: Turning the Tide on Vegas Entertainment

Award-wonnong producer talks about his spectacular about Liberace
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Famed award-winning producer Jeff Kutash is looking to bring his newest project to the Las Vegas Strip in the hopes of making a bigger “splash” than ever before.

The creator of Vegas’ first-ever water show, “an aquacade of music and dance” called “Splash,” which had a 20-year run at the Riviera from 1995-2006, has been working on his latest spectacular about the late great pianist/showman/bling master Liberace for the last five years. Lest you think it’s going to be a dry autobiographical production, this one promises to make huge waves with all the high-tech bells, whistles, and candelabras as well as Liberace’s famed Dancing Waters.

“Liberace is the biggest show I ever tackled,” Kutash reveals. “I just don’t do shows to do shows – it has to be original. Liberace’s the subject instead of water, which was the premise of ‘Splash.’ However, I found the guy who does the fountains in the shopping malls. He started his career with Steve Wynn and built the Bellagio Fountains. He’s going to do the water inside the showroom for this show. Liberace used Dancing Waters and there’s also going to be an ice rink. There will be a lot of interesting elements in this production that no one has ever seen before.”

“What’s missing in Vegas is star presence,” he adds. “and singers and dancers on stage at the same time. Liberace set the benchmark for so many entertainers. He influenced superstars from Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis to Elvis, David Bowie, Elton John, Prince, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre, and many, many more. He even gave Elvis his first lame jacket and advised him that he needed some bling in his show. He became friends with him and Michael Jackson and dozens more. The music of these icons will be in the show and Liberace will be performing a concert just as if he were alive today.”

Kutash explains that there will be three Liberace entities in the production. He speaks to the fact that Liberace invented himself and, though his show business persona was his alter ego, it was fake. He plans on bringing in a well-known star to play Liberace on stage although that person may be well-known in another medium while not recognized for singing, dancing, or live stage roles. Then there will be a deep technology Avatar-like artificial recreation of Liberace who will portray his alter-ego.

Third, the actual piano playing on stage will be done by acclaimed pianist, Philip Fortenberry who will be representing the spirit of the entertainer. He is referred to as “The Hands of Liberace” because it was Fortenberry’s hands that audiences witnessed playing the piano in HBO’s story centering on Liberace’s private life called “Behind the Candelabra.” Michael Douglas played Liberace in the movie but, thanks to moviemaking magic, it was just his head that sat on top of Fortenberry’s body in the piano scenes.

“This show will depict 360 degrees of Liberace,” Kutash relates. “There will be a lot of surprises in the show. There will also be a gospel choir, a 16-piece orchestra, and a marching band. There will be about 50 singers and dancers as well as very unique specialty acts never seen before. I’ll have ice skating champions and maybe some New York City Rockettes – Liberace worked with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. He also brought Ballet Forlorico and a steel drum band into his concerts. I believe, in all, there will be a cast of about 100.”

“Liberace invented Las Vegas as we see it today with over-the-top spectaculars built around music and superstars,” he continues. “He was the godfather of showmanship; he was the first to go flying around the stage, to have cars on stage and water. He was playing the Riviera in the 1950s and making $50,000 a week. He was the highest paid entertainer in Vegas. When he played Radio City, he performed for 6,500 people a show. He had the first TV show, at the dawn of that invention, even before Milton Berle. He was the first artist to dress up in costumes and to have a candelabra and the first to look directly into the TV camera. People thought he was singing to them. He would even dress up to sit in his living room because he didn’t know that people couldn’t see him.”

While Liberace’s capes can be altered, a lot of the show’s budget will be going to costumes, especially those for the headliner playing the legend. Kutash notes that Broadway paid $20 million to put a Liberace show in one of its theaters but he says the Las Vegas show will cost six times that. He has all the patterns for the costumes and notes that they will be bigger than life, with one being so labor-intensive with all the hand-sewn crystals and beads that it will cost $1 million. He says that there will be at least a dozen changes for the star playing Liberace.

“It’s going to be old Vegas coming back with a new twist,” Kutash exclaims. “We’re going to do it 10 times bigger than Liberace himself did. As far as the music goes, there will be classics and Broadway, and motion picture themes as well as current tunes. The singers will sing while Philip plays full songs and a medley of current songs by artists such as Lady Gaga. And the Liberace performer will interface with everyone with singing, comedy, and dancing. Liberace actually used to play while talking.”

“The key to this show is to bring Liberace into today,” he emphasizes. “Each produced sequence is like a show within a show. The music, for which Keith Thompson will be the Musical Conductor, is Gershwin to Queen to the Beatles to Adele and we’ll dazzle audiences with technology. It will be a show unlike anything before in Las Vegas.”

If anyone knows about innovation, it is Jeff Kutash. He began his entertainment career in Cleveland, Ohio, as a dancer/choreographer of the musical variety show “Upbeat,” which was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. He has choreographed for James Brown, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, John Travolta (whom Kutash taught disco), Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson (whom he taught how to Moonwalk), Bette Midler, Cher, and Jerry Lewis. He served as a Live Show Attraction Director for Elvis Presley, Dick Clark, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tom Jones. His unique brand of "Street Dancing" is credited with invigorating Las Vegas' shows for a younger audience, innovating a format that had been held by French-themed revues that filled the showrooms.

“I’ve done 20 shows in Las Vegas, all things I pioneered and that ran for long periods of time,” he sums up. “With this Liberace spectacular, the Social Security set is finally going to have its own show and share it with the Hip-Hop generation.”

It will be a promising new entity to help turn the tide on Las Vegas entertainment.

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