Under the Influence of Frankie Moreno

I admit it, I’ve fallen under the influence of Frankie Moreno.

I should have recognized the warning signs when my toes started tapping at his dress rehearsal two weeks ago. Then came the head bobbing during an interview with Moreno last week when he described his passion for music and creating a show where audiences have such a good time they want to return again and again for the experience.

By then end of opening night on Wednesday, I had fully succumbed to fan-girl  screams, shouts of “Whoo hoo!” and “You go Frankie.”

I am not alone. Moreno’s rockabilly style (dig the pompadour), charismatic stage presence and energized performances has earned him a loyal Vegas following that is now cheering him on in his newest show “Under the Influence” at the Planet Hollywood Showroom.

Hashtag us all #FansofFrankie.

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Frankie Moreno rocks Planet Hollywood with a band that includes Alex Zeilon (guitar), Tony Moreno (bass), Matt “Peanut Butter’ Belote (drums), Chris Massa (trumpet), Fabricio Bezerra (saxophone) and backing singers Markevius Faulkner and Chrystal and Ashley Robinson. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair

Join the party

“It’s OK to be rowdy,” Frankie calls out to the crowd on opening night. He’s come off an explosive opening, starting with original songs – “I Gotta Have It” and “Cinderella” – segueing into a rip-roaring rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”

“All I’m doing is hosting a party,” Moreno says a week earlier when he described the show. “I want to make sure you are happy.”

Wednesday night the audience was more than happy. Try ecstatic.

“Now that’s a Vegas show!” exclaimed an audience member in front of me.

Moreno has taken the essence of his previous acts at lounges throughout Vegas, his headline stint at the Stratosphere hotel and casino and his appearances at the Cabaret Jazz venue at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and added in the big production guns  –  eight LED screens, customized  guitars, three chandeliers, a trio of pianos (including one built into a 1962 Shelby Cobra), costumes and a lighting setup worthy of an arena concert.

“I never could have or would have done this show in a bar,” Moreno says. “This is built for a showroom.”

But at its core, Moreno’s show revels in the music and human connections that made Vegas audiences fall in love with him the first time.

“We’re getting back into that old style of live performances ruling,” he says.

The Sinatra classic "That's Life" gets a new lease on life in Frankie Moreno's new show at Planet Hollywood.

Frankie Moreno nails the Sinatra classic “That’s Life” in his new show “Under The Influence” at Planet Hollywood. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair.

Sinatra, Presley, Moreno

It’s easy to compare Moreno to Vegas greats. You can see touches of Elvis Presley in every hip swivel; spot Frank Sinatra in Moreno’s easy interactions with the audience and his joking requests for a glass of Crown Royal when someone ventures out to the bar.

But these icons have influenced more than just Moreno’s stage presence. They are an integral part of Moreno’s music and his artistry.

“I like the entertainers,” Moreno declares.

Thank god. In a Vegas filled with productions where even the headliner’s patter is scripted (If I hear another fraudulent “How you doing Vegas?” I may scream), Moreno’s genuine love of the music he is performing and the audience he is sharing it with is a breath of fresh air.

He has tapped into a vanishing zeitgeist – performers who connect with and truly entertain you.

“We have wonderful shows, these production shows,” Moreno says. “But there’s no human connection.”

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Great Balls of Fire! It’s Frankie Moreno at the piano in his new show “Under The Influence” at Planet Hollywood. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair.

In Moreno’s show there is no script. It’s all loose. He speaks to the crowd, has a drink and talks. These intimate times are interspersed with the big moments – a song or two or three that he and his five-member band and three back-up singers perform to audience ovations.

Wednesday night saw Moreno performing originals including “Tangerine Honey,” “Moonlight Matinee” and “Diva,” featuring Lacey Schwimmer dancing so acrobatically on the aforementioned Shelby Cobra that she erased all  memories of Tawny Kitaen in that Whitesnake video.

Intermixed with these were unique covers from Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and Bruno Mars’ “When I was Your Man” to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.”

“People walk away from a fun evening saying: ‘I had a great time. I want to do that again. I want that feeling again.’ ” Moreno says.

That’s his goal. Moreno wants you to have such a great time that you’ll return again and again.

“I want you to constantly come back,” he says.

And to keep you coming back Moreno delivers a different experience every night, from his audience interactions to his song choice.

Kip Winger, frontman of'80s rock band Winger, performs The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling,” with Frankie Moreno and the band during Moreno's new show "Under The Influence" at Planet Hollywood. Photo by Denise Truscello.

Kip Winger, frontman of ’80s rock band Winger, performs The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling,” with Frankie Moreno and the band during Moreno’s new show “Under The Influence” at Planet Hollywood. Photo by Denise Truscello.

“Even within the current show I can be flexible,” he says. “The whole point of the show is to evolve.”

The band & singers have “busted their butts” Frankie says, learning between 500 and 600 songs, with a core group that has been polished for performance.  He can rotate in new original songs or new covers over the course of the show’s run or switch up the mix during an acoustic set midway in the night.

So when Kip Winger stopped by a few nights ago, it was no surprise to see him hop on stage with Moreno for an impromptu performance during the acoustic set.  Winger is just the first of many musicians (cough, cough – Air Supply – cough, cough) we expect to stop by, check out Frankie’s show and join in on all the fun.

“The best part is everyone is super into it,” Moreno says.

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A quiet moment with Frankie Moreno in his new show “Under The Influence” at Planet Hollywood. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair.

The long and winding road

This new show caps more than 20 years of working as an entertainer and more than a decade of Moreno working in Vegas.

Back then (for Millennials we’re talking the archaic early 2000s) Moreno was playing every small lounge in town.

“This is such a fun, great place to play,” Moreno says. “In Vegas I can perform all the time and perform to a lot of different people without having to tour.”

The guy who was already working as a songwriter and touring was playing original songs in the lounges, but that was something hotels weren’t into — hotels like the Aladdin, the former property that stood where Planet Hollywood is today.

“I got 86’d out of there for performing original music,” he admits with a laugh.

And it wouldn’t be the last time. The man who was a child piano prodigy, appeared on CBS’ “Star Search” at the age of 11 (Oh yes, there’s video), toured with bands like Air Supply and Sugarland, writes music for hit artists and has twice been named Las Vegas Headliner of the Year, was repeatedly told not to play original music.

Thankfully that changed. Moreno landed a headline spot at the Stratosphere in 2011 and went on to perform his original song “Tangerine Honey” on “Dancing With the Stars” and record with artists like Joshua Bell.

Now he moves to his biggest challenge yet, filling the roughly 800 seats at Planet Hollywood’s showroom.

“I do it (entertain) because I love it,” Moreno says.

Now Vegas audiences get the chance to share that love too.

See Frankie Moreno at 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday at Planet Hollywood.

That’s Life

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