Updated November 6, 2020 - 5:20 pm
Even with all of their success, I admit I don’t know how the Jabbawockeez do it. I’ve never figured out how the masked troupe grew its gyrating, sidewalk dance act from Sacramento to San Diego to a national TV audience.
I couldn’t make the connection between their victory on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” in 2008 to a sellout introductory run in 2010 at the MGM Grand’s Hollywood Theater (where David Copperfield currently headlines). I haven’t quite worked out how such a niche act, with a dance style that originally appealed to teenagers on the streets 15 years ago, so seamlessly matured in a Strip resort.
Never straying from their original funny, party-vibe personalities, Jabbawockeez have far outdistanced an array of Vegas headliners and production shows. They have outlasted three Cirque productions (“Viva Elvis,” “Zarkana” and “R.U.N”), one especially inventive family circus show (“Circus 1903”), a fiery magician (Joe Labero and “Inferno”), and a terrific ventriloquial artist (Paul Zerdin) who himself was a national TV champion, on “America’s Got Talent.”
How is it the Jabbawockeez, uniformly and mysteriously masked, have performed 2,000 shows on the Strip? They surpassed that mark in February.
We got the answer about the Jabbawockeez’s longevity Thursday night. The troupe made its impassioned return to the stage for a friends-and-family show at the MGM Grand Garden arena, where the Jabbas have been given a COVID-19 kick upstairs. Pandemic protocols have forced them from their own 350-seat venue in the old Beacher’s Madhouse theater to the arena where the Rolling Stones, U2 and Paul McCartney all headlined in the same month in 2005.
But the Jabbas are undeniably, if improbably, in their element. I walked into the venue for rehearsals just behind Kevin “KB” Brewer and Joe “Punkee” Larot, who founded the troupe 17 years ago. They mapped out the relocated set as if they’d played the venue for years, and some of the stage’s piping and video does date to their days at the Hollywood Theater.
“We’ve done our best to stay compliant with the safety protocols, and keep people apart in their groups, and no groups larger than four together,” Brewer explained, keeping the safety directives out front of his theater description. “If things get better, hopefully they open it all up.”
As if expectantly, Brewer opened his arms when he said that.
Jabbas play to 17,000? They have opened on tour for Bruno Mars and New Kids on the Block. But playing to a full arena, right now, is just happy talk. Merely selling 250 in a pandemic is a big enough challenge (at this writing, a few tickets remain for their opening shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday). Regardless, Jabbawockeez are in the Grand Garden for the foreseeable future.
“We can play anywhere,” Brewer said. “We’ve seen a lot.”
The troupe was bold in its return with its new show, “Timeless,” bringing a multilevel stage with high-def, LED screens and a pair of auxiliary platforms into the Grand Garden. The act performed behind the 25-foot Entertainment Moat, facing a section of the arena spaced out in clusters of two and four seats. The dance team kept 6 feet apart during numbers and wore its costume masks over CDC-approved masks. But otherwise you would not have detected any difference in the performance.
The Jabbas pulled from Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, as anticipated. Herbie Hancock rocked the Grand Garden sound system as lasers cut through the arena. We are fortunate that a rocking speaker setup and laser lighting requires no COVID-19 social distancing.
The Jabbas performed as costumed Rat Packers. They summoned “Mah Nà Mah Nà” from “Sesame Street.” They produced mime, too, a street scene where a Jabba painted a cast member, in drag, for an updated version of “Mona Lisa.” The show spun back the calendar to the crew’s long history, to its first-ever appearance on TV, on “America’s Got Talent” in 2006.
The Jabbas have been fortunate to partner with a company that has both faith in and architecture for this show. The production had just launched the overhauled show, lining up with the troupe’s 10th anniversary in Las Vegas. The new version premiered March 6, then within two weeks was undercut by the pandemic shutdown.
This pairing of the Jabbawockeez and the MGM Grand Garden could happen only out of abject need. When MGM Resorts announced it would move the show to the Grand Garden, I said, “Wha-a?” But it makes sense. With the Jabbawockeez, you just have to see it to believe it.
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.