Writer’s disclaimer: Your scribe pleads guilty to having an agenda. … a big, Phat agenda.
Charge me with boosterism in the first degree.
As a Vegas Seven entertainment columnist, I’ve grown into an unapologetic advocate for the Phat Pack, the class-act quartet of 50-something ex-castmates from the former Phantom–The Las Vegas Spectacular: Bruce Ewing, Randal Keith, Ted Keegan and Kevan Patriquin. (Three of them perform at any given show, the lineup depending on their individual schedules.)
My plea? Get a room, guys—a showroom. With two already having failed them, maybe a third will be the proverbial charm, given that they’re overdue to have their luck (so far, bad) match up with their talent (far better than good—in fact, great). Masters of old-school razzmatazz, each with a Ph.D in showmanship, they’re a tuxedoed treat. Breathing freshness into every Great American Songbook standard and Broadway classic they belt out, they garnish their performances with touching personal stories and easygoing warmth.
Irresistible, regardless of the generational ID you hold.
“It came about because we all walked out to the parking lot together for all those years,” Ewing says. “As you get older in musical theater, there are less and less roles and there’s so much politics within theater. And we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could have our own show and be our own bosses? Not make it about an overproduced project, but just about the music and the camaraderie.”
Rewind to June 2012, less than two months before Phantom haunted the Venetian for the final time, when the Phatties road-tested their act at a local church, packing the pews. “We just wanted to invite about a hundred people to try it out in front of people,” Ewing remembers. “But word got out in a really good way and we had around 700 people show up that day.”
Success came again when they gave a well-received performance at Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center. Sufficiently encouraged, they went about coaxing cash from wallets.
“People gave us gifts from $25 to $10,000,” Ewing says. “They saw the show and wanted to be a part of it. We raised $125,000, which was enough to get us going, because our show is really low-cost compared to anything else.”
Moving up meant heading Downtown when they opened at the Plaza Showroom in November 2012. Friends of Ewing who produced one of the Plaza’s other shows, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, helped score them the gig, sharing space with Whorehouse and other showroom roomies Bite and The Grand Ole Vegas Revue.
Rhapsodic reviews poured in from both Vegas critics and out-of-town publications such as Broadway World. Cachet snowballed and they were even asked by the Mayors Goodman—current chieftain Carolyn and her predecessor-hubby, Oscar—to perform at a conference of mayors from around the nation.
Yet disappointment—multiple disappointments—loomed. Audiences were slow to discover them Downtown—Ewing estimates the average draw at their three-day-a-week, 5 and 7 p.m. performances at 35 to 50 patrons—in a troubled showroom.
They weren’t the only ones feeling shortchanged by venue and box-office management.
After voicing concerns over the operation supervised by manager (and comic hypnotist) Anthony Cools, Bite producer Tim Molyneux pulled his show in December, and Whorehouse and Grand also shuttered. Less expensive and simpler to stage, the Phat Pack hung on until the room locked up on New Year’s Day in 2013.
Two months later, with the showroom now operated directly by the Plaza, the Phat Pack reopened in March of last year and saw a slow, steady climb in audience draw—for eight months. “The second time we just ran out of money,” Ewing says about their closure last November. “We tried to produce ourselves and just ran out of resources.”
More elation—and the greatest letdown—was on the way.
Before the Phat packed it in, Andrew Van Slee, known primarily as a movie producer but leasing the Windows Showroom at Bally’s at the time, popped down to the Plaza and, Ewing says, flipped for the Phatties and agreed to produce them at Bally’s.
Finally they’d leapt to the Strip, in a sumptuous room with promotional muscle behind them … and survived for nine performances, closing on the cusp of Christmas, snake-bitten again by behind-the-scenes turmoil. Bad news, Ewing says, arrived in an email from Van Slee, explaining he was putting them on ice to rework his producing plan, with the expectation of a February return. There was no return.
And no more Van Slee, who withdrew from Bally’s.
“We got great press again, there was a buzz building and then everything was pulled out from underneath us. We thought, what a bizarre choice for a producer to make after putting all this money into moving us,” Ewing says. Asked to specify what went sour, Ewing will only cite “financial irregularities,” and adds: “I don’t want to sound like a bitter performer, but I picked the wrong business partner.”
Requests for comment from Van Slee by Vegas Seven went unanswered, as does—at least so far—Ewing’s hope for a new home. This writer’s hope, too. Graciously, Ewing recalls our post-show encounter in the Plaza Showroom lobby.
“You floored us the very first day. You came over and said to me [after the show], ‘You put me in a tough spot.’ And I asked you why and you said, ‘because there are no words to describe your show, but I still have to write about it.’ That was a pivotal moment for us, when we realized we had something and we have to keep pushing.”
Yes, I said that. Then I wrote that. I still mean that.
“Look, I had no business raising over $100,000 trying to produce a show. I’m a singer, not a producer,” Ewing says. “But then we saw the reaction when we did the show for the first time in the church. So many times, people in their lives say, we should do this and we should do that. This is the one time in our life when we said we should do this—and then actually did it. So even now, I really don’t think it’s over in Las Vegas.”
Damn well better not be.