Legendary Lookalikes

Those eyes, that hair and --of course-- that voice! Talent and hard work turn impersonators into almost the real thing for Atlantic City audiences.

February 23, 2000|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

ATLANTIC CITY -- Just down the hall, in the vast, glittering casino at Bally's Park Place, grim-faced men sit hunched over $5 blackjack tables and little old ladies carrying plastic cups filled with quarters park themselves in front of noisy slot machines and chase their dreams.

But here in the hotel's darkened theater, Barbra Streisand is knocking 'em dead.

Look at her up there! Look at her belting out "The Way We Were" and then beaming and brushing the hair from her face in that familiar, crooked-finger manner as the joint erupts in applause.

Then, in that practiced between-songs patter that's supposed to sound spontaneous, except it's about as spontaneous as a State of the Union address, she says: "You know, I've been blessed to have worked with a lot of talented people ..."

Boy, you're not kidding, Babs. Especially tonight. What a star-studded extravaganza we have here!

Little Richard, the one and only, was the opening act, banging on his piano and jumping around the stage like a crazed seal.

That giant of the industry, Stevie Wonder, was up next, followed by country-pop diva Linda Ronstadt. And then a voice offstage intoned: "Ladies and gentlemen, the incomparable Barbra Streisand!"

And hey, Elvis is due out here next -- despite the inconvenient fact he's been dead, what, 22 years?

But in the theater's dim light, with a drink or two anesthetizing our brains, it's easy to forget that what we're seeing and hearing are not the genuine superstars, but celebrity impersonators, in a revue called "Legends in Concert."

The "Legend" on stage now, in fact, is Cindy Harrelson, who looks and sings so much like Streisand it's scary.

Forget separated at birth; Harrelson appears to be the result of a Streisand cloning experiment.

And the crowd -- which paid $20 a ticket -- seems transfixed. On this freezing Sunday night, the 7: 30 show is sold out. People have been waiting in line 90 minutes.

It's a decidedly older crowd, sprinkled liberally with senior citizens. When Little Richard howls "Put your hands together, y'all!" the response is the same hip, rhythmic clapping you might hear at an Amish barn-raising.

Still, lots of folks seem to be having a ball. When the faux Streisand chirps in that icky Barbra voice "Now wil you please thank our superb, superb band and dancers, too?!" the applause is loud and genuine.

So we sit back, order another overpriced Coors Light and watch Ms. Streisand and her famous friends perform.

And what we discover is this: Playing a legend looks like a helluva lot of hard work.

Simple format

A "Legends" revue plays at Bally's 50 weeks a year, six nights a week, two shows a night. It has been a hugely popular act; there are "Legends" troupes playing in a dozen venues across the country, including Vegas, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Branson, Mo., as well as in Canada, Germany and Australia.

The format is simple: Find a performer who resembles a recording superstar, and have that performer do the superstar's act.

Rose Worton, the director and choreographer of the show, says her performers "capture the essence" of the acts they mimic.

"The genius of the idea," says Worton, "is that every song they sing has been a No. 1 hit and sold a million copies. These are songs that everyone grew up with. So how can you miss with the audience?"

Of course, actual talent helps immeasurably.

The best impersonators sing the famous songs in the original key and tempo, and mirror the superstars' wardrobes, hair styles, verbal tics and onstage mannerisms.

Bobby Brooks, 38, went to a school for the blind in Hawaii when he first set out to impersonate Stevie Wonder three years ago.

Brooks grew up singing gospel music in South Carolina and had been performing for years as an impersonator of R&B legend Jackie Wilson. But he'd only seen Wonder perform a couple of times on "Saturday Night Live." Soon, however, he was devouring all of Wonder's albums and studying his concert videos.

"What I really worked on was getting inside his character and seeing what he's all about," says Brooks. "He had so much humanity! And his lyrics were just so strong."

So complete is his immersion in the character that behind the dark sunglasses he wears, Brooks performs with his eyes closed.

"I don't look at the audience at all," he says. "I go by what I hear and feel ... I can feel a negative or positive response.

"And I play off [Wonder's] handicap. If the audience is quiet, I'll say: `If you don't make some noise, I'm gonna be out [working] at valet parking next time you see me.' "

Cindy Harrelson says she's been singing in Streisand's voice since she was a 9-year-old growing up in that hotbed of Streisand-mania: Houston. Over the next 10 years, she became a big fan, which made her something of the neighborhood weirdo.

"I was a strange child," explains Harrelson, a cousin of actor Woody Harrelson. "When everyone else was listening to Led Zeppelin, I [was] listening to Barbra Streisand."

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