Wayne Newton has been a star for decades, and his current five-day, seven-show stand at the Seneca Niagara Events Center brings some Las Vegas glitter to Western New York.
Newton has garnered quite a few nicknames during his years as a Vegas headliner – “The Midnight Idol,” “Mr. Entertainment” and, perhaps most tellingly, “Mr. Las Vegas.”
As a showman, Newton held his audiences in thrall with a voice that was high, pure and clear, an instrumental prowess that was impressive, and a ribald sense of humor that left the concept of political correctness at the back door.
His band – or more to the point, his orchestra – was filled with crack musicians who could follow Newton’s whimsical on-the-fly adjustments to set lists. The backup singers were top-notch, and the songs performed included a mixture of lounge standards by his Rat Pack idols in addition to rock, pop, and country-tinged hits of the day.
His own Gold Record-winning tunes like “Summer Wind” and “Daddy, Don’t You Walk So Fast” were reliable fan favorites, and no show would be complete without Newton swinging into his first major hit, “Danke Schoen.”
Wednesday afternoon’s show, the first in Newton’s Niagara Falls engagement, was filled by folks whose expectations were high, based upon prior experiences with his performances, and, to some extent, parts of the gig were engaging.
The problems that marred the concert had less to do with the singer’s backups than they had to do with the star.
The band, made up of the section leaders from Newton’s regular Vegas group and several local musicians, played well, adjusting to the singer’s whims as he rearranged the set list. The backup singers were very, very good, especially Frances Lee (aka Frances Holman-Moore), whose outstanding solo version of “Amazing Grace” was the vocal highlight of the day.
After the concert, I was in an elevator with two Newton fans and heard them express disappointment with his singing even as they admitted that it was a good show. That pretty much summed up the concert.
Newton’s voice just doesn’t have the power and clarity it once had, something to be expected when a singer is in his seventh decade.
It’s a well-worn ghost of what it used to be, relying on memories of the past to cover up the faults of the present.
He still tells jokes, many of which have traveled with him through time, and when he grabs an instrument toward the end of his show, he shows flashes of the talent that used to amaze.
His guitar-picking was good, and the fiddling on “Orange Blossom Special” was very good but as a pianist, Newton was perfunctory, and his banjo playing was barely adequate.
It was the moments between Newton’s singing that were the most engaging.
When he put the musicians through their paces or when he engaged in a back-and-forth with the audience, Newton was a consummate professional.
But then, by showcasing a few television clips from his early days, when he sang on a Lucille Ball show or did a duet with Dean Martin, Newton reminded folks of what he was then and what he wasn’t now.
Much of the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end, but neither Newton nor the fans stayed around long enough for an encore.
Wednesday at Seneca Niagara Event Center, Niagara Falls, Other performances today through Sunday.