at the Apollo Theater Center

As a critic I often find myself going to shows that normally wouldn’t interest me in the least. This can be a blessing or a curse.

Al Anthony’s Salute to the Superstars, subtitled “World’s Greatest Impressionists,” is something of a blessing and a curse–as entertaining as it is embarrassing, as grandly overproduced as it is creakily low-budget, as contemporary as it is pathetically out of date. Fundamentally I found the evening to be an enormous curiosity, which left me somehow both delighted and depressed.

There are so many ways to approach this show. I might evaluate the six impersonators–their mimicry, their ability to entertain the crowd. We are meant to be impressed by emcee Bill Acosta’s impressions of Tony Bennett, Truman Capote, and Katharine Hepburn–and we are. We are meant to be seduced by Quinn Callahan’s Madonna, but despite a superficial resemblance, she’s only been given a few pat gestures and some innocuous choreography. Then there are the scantily clad Mark Dow dancers. In other words, the show is supposed to be an exhibition of skill, a lot of moderately funny jokes, and some tits and ass.

And by and large it is a hoot–there are enough nuggets of talent to support this quasi extravaganza. Sy’s Michael Jackson is nearly picture-perfect–though compared to Jackson himself, whom we have all seen doing exactly these moves, Sy is a bit of a disappointment, of course. (Mark Dow’s rather muddy choreography, which my companion characterized as “early theme park,” doesn’t help Sy’s act, either.) Bruce Robins as Liberace is impressive at the piano but unconvincing in his attempts to camp it up. Sharon Michaels as Barbra Streisand is tremendous fun, mostly because in the great tradition of impersonators, she does everything just a little too Streisandly. And Paul Boland’s Elvis is endearing because he’s so happily generic. Boland seems like a guy hauled in off the street, stuck in a costume and wig, and shoved onstage–and he revels in this. Of all the impressionists, he takes himself the least seriously, spending more energy playfully giving his audience a hard time (including following a group of latecomers up to their seats) than trying to convince us that he’s the King.

But the parts that send this show into orbit belong to emcee Acosta, who is the perfect lounge entertainer. Dressed in a tuxedo and cowboy boots, with hair that could easily survive a typhoon, Acosta brings that delightfully cheesy Vegas club sensibility to the stage. His impressions are terrific, his jokes are awful, and through it all he lets us laugh both with and at him, stopping at one point to roll his eyes and say, “What a way to make a living.”

On this level, the show is just plain mindless fun, with momentary exhibitions of remarkable skill. It’s like watching a drag show at the Baton–minus the drag and minus the seedy surroundings. (Actually that seediness might help this show–the icy white set of the pristine Apollo Theater feels like an operating room, and the show’s like a dissected specimen.) Seeing Salute to the Superstars is like going to Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum: the kitsch is so thorough it can’t help but produce a certain glow.

As in all Vegas shows, the performers stop at nothing to elicit applause. Everyone asks, “Are you all having a good time?” And everyone says, “How about those Mark Dow Dancers? Aren’t they great?” Apparently the performers feel a need to convince us that, yes, this show is worth $22.50 a seat. Look, for example, at these excerpts from the program:

“[Bruce Robins] just completed his first major record album titled, ‘Bruce Robins, America’s Most Exciting Pianist, Plays Grand Piano.’ During his performances, he will take requests and before the audience he magically creates a panorama of music from their requests. This feat is nothing short of amazing. No other pianist has dared to do this during a performance.”

“[Sy] dances brilliantly, he sings live and has a terrific stage presence.”

“[Sharon Michaels] is the dynamic singer who makes you believe that Barbra Streisand is really here. Sharon’s impression is so uncanny that she must augment her act with conversation to prove to audiences that she isn’t Ms. Streisand herself.”

This is the Evel Knievel school of self-promotion. But sadly, these performers seem to have deluded themselves that their inflated rhetoric is true. At times, watching them belt it out, as they must have done for years, standing in front of a white backdrop that looks like a huge bedsheet–complete with a few rips and tears–and telling the two-thirds empty house that we’re a “great audience,” I didn’t want to be in the theater anymore.

At its worst, this show is dangerous. Since it’s a “family” show, certain realities have been expunged–but that’s no cause for outright lies. Acosta makes a joke, for example, about Truman Capote and his wife. Homosexuality is not just ignored here, it’s erased. And the grand finale, introduced as a salute to our troops (I saw the show the day of the Desert Storm parade), is as violent a display of forced jingoism, as any I’ve seen, complete with a huge American flag unfurling just as the show ends. I was waiting for the giant photo of Joseph McCarthy to be flown in. The aggressively nostalgic and sanitized Salute to the Superstars feels like a relic from another age.