New Singing Casino Drama 'Viva Laughlin' Sure to Go Bust

Article excerpt

Byline: Ted Cox

Far be it from me to discourage groundbreaking television, but sometimes there's a reason certain ground isn't broken.

"Viva Laughlin" debuts at 9 p.m. today on CBS' WBBM Channel 2. It's a new U.S. version of a British series, "Viva Blackpool," set in a seaside gambling resort. Here it's transported to the desert city of Laughlin, Nev., outside Las Vegas.

Yet, as few U.S. viewers have seen the British original, that doesn't figure to create much confusion. No, the major problem for "Viva Laughlin" is the connotations it raises with a certain infamous prime-time flop on these shores: "Cop Rock."

Yes, the major broadcast networks are back with another stab at creating a musical TV series - and no I don't mean like "Unplugged" or "American Bandstand" or even "Shindig" or "Hullabaloo." I mean like a movie musical, where characters burst into song at moments of high passion, as in Steven Bochco's misguided attempt to make a musical police show.

Look, I like movie musicals. Although I have to admit I prefer the more contemporary "realistic" musical, a la the Beatles' "Hard Day's Night," there's nothing like "Singin' in the Rain" or "West Side Story" or even those great Astaire & Rogers musicals like "Top Hat" to brighten a viewer's mood.

And even that hyper-conscious style can be done effectively with postmodern irony (see Gurinder Chadha's "Bride & Prejudice").

Yet, formulaic as most TV series are, that formula has never adapted itself to the musical. TV doesn't necessarily have to be "realistic," but it does have to be believable, and something about people bursting into song as they walk along - or as they sell an infant for crack money, as was the case with "Cop Rock" - just doesn't translate to the small screen.

"Laughlin" isn't likely to change that, not because it has gambling addicts sing about their woes, but mainly because, as courageous as it is as a musical, it couldn't be more tiresome as a TV drama.

"Laughlin" opens trying to sneak in that it's a musical. Lloyd Owen stars as Ripley Holden, who has recently swapped a chain of convenience stores for a shot at the big time running a casino.

He goes driving down the highway and strutting through his hotel while singing along with Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas."

Hey, he's simply got the song running through his head and decides to join in. What could be more normal? Maybe it's a little queer that he gets up and does some hip-swiveling on a table, but the guy's opening a casino. He's got a right to be excited.

All pretenses toward "normalcy" go out the window when Holden's rival, Nicky Fontana, played by Hollywood star, Broadway hoofer and, not coincidentally, show producer Hugh Jackman, displays how evil he is by belting out "Sympathy for the Devil. …