New Jubilee! director promises to honor Vegas show creator’s legacy

It’s been a long time coming. After 32 years, showgirl production Jubilee! is entering the contemporary world of shows on the Las Vegas Strip – and with it could lose its designation as a topless revue.

To watch Jubilee! today is like stepping back in time, a “Twilight Zone” sort of experience, complete with 1970s instrumental music, technicolor-esque dance numbers and an acrobatic scene that brought to mind the cover art of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, “Atlas Shrugged.”


Location: Bally’s Las Vegas

Showing: 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday – Wednesday, 7 p.m. Thursday, 10 p.m. Saturday

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At one point, after watching the Biblical Samson and Delilah number, a technically complicated scene that features the destruction of a temple, showboys in leather jockstraps and scantily clad slave girls, my date for the night leaned over and asked me, “What the f*ck did I just watch?”

But even so, the production is book-ended with what most of the audience yearns for: Beautiful and elegant Vegas showgirls decked out in elaborately sequined costumes and fantastic feathered headpieces maintained over Jubilee!’s three decades of performances.

If all the gems used in Jubilee! – topaz, crystal, sapphire, emerald and ruby, to name a few – were to be weighed together, it would come out to 10,000 pounds.

Jubilee! was created by Las Vegas choreographer Donn Arden, who died in 1994 at age 79. He is noted for bringing to life the over-the-top Vegas productions that many shows still strive to achieve.

The production features 85 dancers, singers and three specialty acts, performed on a stage half the width of an American football field.

Revitalizing Jubilee! is a major commitment Caesars Entertainment has made to Arden’s legacy, said Kurt Melien, vice president of entertainment for Caesars Entertainment.

“The landscape of Las Vegas entertainment has changed a great deal,” Melien said. “There’s a large offering of modern, Cirque-style shows and other types of shows that are truly modern and at least from this decade. I think it’s important, from a historical standpoint, to take a look back at Vegas’ roots. The iconic showgirl image is one that will forever be associated with Vegas, and we want to see that last a long time.”

Caesars Entertainment decided to bring in choreographer Frank Gatson Jr., perhaps best known for his choreography of Beyonce’s popular “Single Ladies: Put a Ring on It” video.

Gatson – who points out his middle name is Don, much like Jubilee! creator Arden – is used to working with the likes of Michael Jackson (“Smooth Criminal”), Rihanna, Toni Braxton, En Vogue and Usher.  He’s singer Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s longtime creative director and has choreographed and directed a group performance on TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“I respect greatness,” Gatson said, “I’m here to make a classic greater.”

Frank Gatson Jr.

Gatson is fairly mum on what changes he’d like to see, but said he is considering everything from an overhaul of the music system to no longer having the female dancers bare their breasts.

“I’m not saying I want to take away the topless (show), but something about the topless is different today,” Gatson said. “There’s something about society that has made people desensitized to a topless person. For me, when I see a female, I like to see the cleavage. There’s something so great about how these girls make their cleavage look so sexy.”

The show’s music is also high on Gatson’s list. Having watched the show at least 10 times in the past couple months, he has paid close attention to the Jubilee! Theatre’s sound system.

“I think the most important thing that I need to start with is the music and the sound system,” he said. “Once you get that right, music tells you what to do dance-wise. Music tells you what to do with the lights. Music tells you how to feel. Music tells the audience how to feel. I’m not talking about loud or anything about that, I’m just talking about technology that sounds flawless.”

Gatson said he plans on keeping the dances classic, but with a modern edge to keep the show relevant with today’s audiences.

One thing that absolutely won’t change, Gatson said, is much of the cast’s wardrobe – especially that of the showgirls’. More than 1,000 costumes, designed by fashion designers Bob Mackie and Peter Menefee, are worn during the show. The average cost of a costume is $7,000, according to Caesars.

“Everything about Jubilee!, it epitomizes time,” Gatson said. “When I watch Jubilee!, those costumes, the reason they are still relevant, is because they transcend time. They’re not something that’s trendy.

“The only wardrobe I don’t like is some of the men’s wardrobe. We forget that women today are a little more liberal and women like to look at sexy men; men like to look at sexy women, and women know how to appreciate a sexy woman, but I think Jubilee! in some way is missing the fact that women are a little more bold today, so they’ll scream and holler at stuff that’s hot to holler at. (laughs)”

Melien said Gatson will lead the show’s revamping, but creative decisions will be a team effort. He agreed that the show’s costumes are a must-keep, but it is still too early to say what other elements, including dance numbers, such as “The Sinking of the Titanic,” will stay.

Gatson is also considering targeting nightclubs’ customer base, complete with bottle service – hearkening back to the ’50s when table service was the norm with Las Vegas show audiences.

He wants to give the audience a performance – nay, an experience – that is, in his words, “fantabulous.”

“The moment you walk into the theater, I think the experience should start,” Gatson said. “Let’s be real: I’m going to try to keep a lot of things top secret because when they walk into the showroom on opening night, I want people to go, ‘Wow.’”

Jubilee! is performed Saturday through Thursday in Bally’s Jubilee! Theatre on the Las Vegas Strip. The revamped show is expected to launch spring 2014.