Never Out of Style

Mark O’Toole learned a long time ago if he wanted to stand out as an entertainer in the crazy business of show business, being versatile was key. But if the talent isn’t solid, versatility won’t take a person very far.
That’s something O’Toole has never had to worry about — he has the vocal ability to sing anything he wants and a sense of humor that fits in anywhere. Being able to alternate between a voice like soft butter or rough sandpaper — if that’s what a song calls for — gives O’Toole his edge.
Originally from Boston, his love of performing began early in life with leading roles in The Boston Children’s Theatre. After several years of guitar lessons, he discovered the other love of his life — singing. He sang in the church choir five days a week and starred in many musical productions in surrounding community theaters.
His first national exposure happened in a most unusual way — his dead-on impression of a matronly grandmother. As a favor to his friend, a DJ on WVBF-FM in Boston, he would pretend to be his grandmother. As fate would have it, Jay Thomas, a regular on “Cheers” and “Murphy Brown,” heard O’Toole while in Boston and asked him to be a regular on his radio show in Hollywood. He was an instant hit.
But O’Toole couldn’t deny his first love, singing. So he moved to Las Vegas where he appeared on Star Search, with a rendition of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” beating out a five-time winner.
Since then he’s headlined at almost every casino and nightclub in Vegas and Laughlin, earning entertainment awards such as three consecutive “Best Male Vocalist” honors and humanitarian awards for his work off the stage.
O’Toole’s country band was one of the most sought-after bands playing all The Strip properties. But Vegas is a fickle mistress and just like disappearing magic shows, the popularity of country acts also started to fade. So O’Toole and his guys didn’t miss a beat, switching to a pop sound, performing music from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Part velvet, part gravel, and all taut emotion, it’s a voice that seems ideally suited to perform the songs of the Great American Songbook.
But what audiences need to understand is the seasoning behind that remarkable voice. Decades of hard-won experience carried this performer through several careers and across thousands of miles. Some of those miles include a return trip to Laughlin where he brings his “The Music of Manilow” show to the Riverside Resort.
We talked with O’Toole about the music and the show this year. Here’s his take…

What’s in store this year? Will it be different than last year?
We’re looking forward to coming back for our second appearance, almost a year exactly from the time we were here last. And, yes, we have changed the show, and believe it or not added more hits. I have decided to take out the medley at the end of the show which was about 15 minutes long and actually do five of Barry’s biggest songs in their entirety. I thought that the songs I added to the show were too great to only sing a snippet of. So this time around is definitely bigger and better than before.
The musicians actually went over all the charts with a finetooth comb and I believe we have come up with a show that will blow the roof off the theater. I’m so blessed and can’t wait to come back to Laughlin.

What makes this tribute different?
It’s not hokey, it’s not like a tribute where you pretend to be somebody else, it’s actually just me up there singing these songs. It’s really good, and I’m not saying that from my standpoint, it’s just a different kind of tribute. People think they’re gonna go see something more hokey or somebody’s gonna look like somebody and it’s nothing like that at all. It’s just a lot of fun.
I really think people don’t expect that. I think when the curtain opens up and you see 10-11 people on stage dressed to the hilt, and we’re bringing this incredible show with live music, it’s just a ride. There’s nothing pre-recorded. There’s so many shows now that are pre-recorded and nothing’s live.

You changed the show based on audience reaction?
What we did was, we just really thought about the audience, and really went back and revamped it to make it more audience-friendly, people wanted to hear the whole song. But he has so many damn hits. So last year we did a snippet of “Daybreak,” a snippet of “American Bandstand,” and a snippet of “Weekend in New England,” and people were like, “Oh, my God, go back and finish it.” So, I said, you know, we can do this, let’s take out the filler songs and just put the hits in there, so that’s what we’re doing. We really did put a lot of effort into changing it up this time.

Other projects in the works?
Starting in November, I start to travel the world with the show as well, on the cruise ships and my first stop is Bora Bora and then to South America in January.

What do you like about playing at the Riverside?
The whole show is just me having fun with the audience. I’m singing some songs and not being too serious about life, and just really having a good time. That’s why it’s doing so well.
I love the Riverside. To me, it’s like old Vegas. I’ve been doing this for 45 years, I’ve played all the places that are gone now like The Stardust, The Dunes, Frontier and the Aladdin, oh my God, it was so much fun. I used to come down to Laughlin all the time, and I’ve played at various properties throughout Laughlin. So I’m very familiar with the people down there, the surroundings and I really enjoy it.

Why Barry Manilow?
I’ve been headlining here in Vegas on The Strip for over 25 years. As I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten to be a very difficult town and the thing is you have to be a little smarter, more like a chameleon to get ahead, you really do.
You have to be a triple threat, you have to not only be able to sing now, you have to be able to entertain, and talk to the people and that’s an art form in itself. And most of all, you have to have a good show. There’s a lot of people out here that can sing well, but they can’t get in front of an audience and vice versa. I’ve been a Manilow fan since I was a kid, and if you like Manilow, it’s bam, bam, bam, one hit after the other and it’s just very electric. The reviews have been great, everywhere we go we’ve been selling out.

Talk about putting your spin on his material.
I’ve seen him like 30 times over the years and I’ve always liked his music but I do it well enough to put my stamp on it and really put it across well. You either do it right or you don’t do it at all. I know there’s a lot of other bands out there that do this kind of thing and they used tracks, and they use only a few people on stage.
I don’t like the word tribute because it lends to the fact that possibly someone is dead. I just think of it as a celebration of his music. I don’t dress up as Barry, I don’t wear the nose, I don’t wear a wig, it’s just going out there and really putting on the best possible show for the people and doing the songs that people come there to expect to hear. The songs are so terrific and they’re so catchy.
You don’t have to be a certain age to enjoy a certain genre of music, you just don’t and I think we’d all agree to that. I think all this music just stays with you. A good love song never goes out of style.


THE MUSIC OF MANILOW

Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside

Wednesday-Sunday, Oct. 3-7 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for ticket info