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Joe Brown

After the glamour gigs, they try out new music

17 March 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- It may be the most Vegas show — and most un-Vegas — show in town. Almost-secret, free-of-charge, this unpredictable, once-a-month, word-of-mouth happening is the closest this town gets to an off-Broadway scene — about 2,500 miles off Broadway.

Fresh from their evening performances in "Spamalot," "La Reve," "Menopause," "Mamma Mia!" and more, dozens of singers, dancers and musicians head over to the Liberace Museum to unwind and catch up over a hot buffet and a drink (or two). At about 11 p.m., these showgirls and guys take turns entertaining their cast mates, colleagues and peers.

It's called the Composers Showcase. It's not a piano bar or cabaret revue, and although it lasts the requisite 90 minutes, this is far from your standard Strip-show fare: All the songs performed are original works-in-progress by local (meaning living in Vegas at the moment) songwriters, previewing ambitious new musicals, compositions and instrumentals.

And the audience — the majority of them performers and musicians themselves — may be the most discerning and supportive (and OK, occasionally catty) crowd imaginable.

There's an excited after-show buzz on this Monday night in late February, and the room vibrates like the 20-year reunion of a high school drama club. Lots of air kisses and exaggerated expressions and wiggling finger waves and raucous gossip ("Hi puddin'. I'm getting a divorce — I signed the papers on Valentine's Day!"). Famished after their shows, many performers beeline for the buffet, balancing meatballs and tiramisu on white plastic plates. Others are rehearsing at their tables, flipping through score books and quietly singing to their tablemates.

After a welcome from Darin Hollingsworth, executive director of the Liberace Foundation ("It's my little chance at being in the cast of something," he jokes), the show kicks off with a country song by Keith Thompson, musical director of the upcoming "Jersey Boys" and organizer of the two-year-old Showcase series. He seems surprised when he is joined onstage by two dancers in ultratight cowboy costumes, who really-dirty-dance behind him. (And Thompson is surprised: He e-mailed an MP3 of the song to choreographer friend Courtney Combs that afternoon, and she roped in Luke Lazzaro and Jessica Walker from her "Phantom of the Opera" cast for a pas de deux duded up with lassos and high-kicks. Busy singing, Thompson never really gets to see the dance himself.)

"It's a production number, y'all!" whoops a woman at one of the tables.

Next up is Wayne Green, who sets down his drink on the purple tablecloth and weaves between tables to the stage. As Green, the musical director of "Spamalot," takes his place behind the rhinestone encrusted baby grand (Liberace's own), he is joined by 11 members of his cast, still jazzed from their 8 p.m. performance at the Wynn. Giggling and chattering behind him, scorebooks in hand, they suddenly stun the crowd with a full-voiced medieval chorale about saints and crusaders.

Behind them, an outsize and exuberant Liberace flings his crimson cape in benediction.

"The creative spirit in Las Vegas is unbelievable," says Michael Brennan, the musical director of "Le Reve," introducing an instrumental duet between pianist Philip Fortenberry and violinist Abe Gumroyan, a recipient of a Liberace Foundation scholarship. This haunting requiem, Brennan says, was inspired by hearing of the murder of a family of silverback gorillas in a documentary, and after the last note the audience sits in respectful silence before erupting in applause.

"I'm really glad I get to go on after the dead gorilla song," deadpans Vicki Van Tassel, who plays Tanya in "Mamma Mia!", expertly shifting emotional gears and applying her tangiest Tammy Wynette twang to another of Thompson's tunes, this one a comical tabloid-inspired honky-tonk number.

"The Showcase night is somewhere between a composers forum and basically a party," Thompson explains offstage. "We try to make sure people consider it an after-theater hang, a place to go and socialize. But the focus is always on the songwriters, the performers and the work. Many of the songwriters and performers in the production shows are cast from L.A. or New York and just happen to be in Las Vegas for the time being. But we're all part of what we call the theater community in Las Vegas, which is growing and exploding and struggling all at the same time.

"When we started this two years ago, at an establishment called Suede, it was just an insiders kind of party," he says. "?'Hairspray' was still in town, 'Phantom' had just started, and the cast of 'Menopause' would come, too. It was a great way for us to meet each other and see what each other can do."

When Clint Holmes was working on his autobiographical musical "Just Another Man," Thompson says, he started coming to the Showcase to see how his new songs went over in front of an audience.

After about a year, the Liberace Museum invited the Showcase to move in, and set it up with a caterer for the $5 buffet and cash bar.

The next monthly Composers Showcase is Tuesday at 10:30, and Thompson says he's expecting performers from "Mamma Mia!" and "Phantom," along with a local minister and a singing gondolier from the Venetian. "It's really catching on — we're actually on the verge of outgrowing the Liberace space. We've begun to pick up a following of people who are not necessarily in show business."

Back on the Showcase stage, Brennan returns to review a song from his new musical, "Citizen Ruth," based on the darkly comic 1996 movie about a drug-using pregnant woman who is pulled back and forth between pro-life and pro-choice groups. Then Richard Oberacker, musical director of "Ka," invites up a quartet of singers to audition his elaborately arranged song cycle about parents finding out they're expecting. In just a few minutes, it presents their hopes, fears and resolutions, topped with a triumphal Broadway-style chorus.

It's almost time for the final curtain when Rylan Leo Helmuth, who usually stays behind the scenes as part of the technical crew of "Phantom," shyly ambles onstage in a denim workshirt. "I'm a little nervous," he confesses. "Last time I played in front of a group this big was in college. At a party."

Someone hands him a chair and Helmuth starts to pick softly at his acoustic guitar. He tells the crowd that his pregnant wife had to stay home tonight, and asks someone to hold up his cell phone so she can hear his debut, a song about two women dating one guy who's cheating on both of them.

"Hi baby, I'm onstage," he says. And starts to sing.