Resident shows at Ocean, Harrah’s: Laughs, tricks and an out-of-the box approach to classic-rock chestnuts; Japanese eatery opens at Tropicana AC

Summer is when Atlantic City’s casinos have traditionally programmed entertainment offerings that extend beyond the standard one-night-only headliner bookings.

masters of illusion
“Masters of Illusion” star Jonathan Pendragon performs a levitation trick. Photo credit: Chuck Darrow

Summer is when Atlantic City’s casinos have traditionally programmed entertainment offerings that extend beyond the standard one-night-only headliner bookings. Among them are three presentations that together cover a wide artistic (and demographic) swath. Individually, each has much to recommend it:

Magical Mystery Doors

The every-Sunday-afternoon (through Sept. 4) musical revue staged by the band known as Magical Mystery Doors is by far the most surprising of the three productions. As it is a tribute to three of rock music’s most important and beloved bands—The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Doors—expectations were that the show would be sliced into three distinct segments, each devoted to one of the groups, with the focus being ultra-faithful recreations of the material. Much to our delight, that isn’t the case.

Instead of hewing to the tried-and-true blueprint of painstakingly recreating songs, the five-piece troupe has crafted a program that is unique to the “tribute act” realm: The quintet intersperse strong renditions of many of the bands’ most revered tunes with a wildly inventive concept: The mashing up of two ostensibly musically-and-lyrically disparate songs. For instance, while the group plays Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days,” lead singer Vinny DeRenzis serves up the lyrics to The Doors’ “Hello I Love You.” Another example was the late-set segment that combined the chords to The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the lyrics to Zep’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

To be sure, this mix-and-match approach is gimmicky, but Magical Mystery Doors does it in just the right amount, so it doesn’t grow old or predictable. And because the band’s set list hopscotches among the three bands rather than stick to one artist at a time, the listener is kept on their toes, because one never knows what’s coming next.

The effect is enhanced by the individual and collective talents of the ensemble, beginning with DeRenzis and keyboardist Jeff Tomrell, who devised the unusual MMD format. They are ably abetted by lead guitarist (and sometime lead vocalist) Brendan Marro, bassist Greg Reigel (who also takes a couple spins on mandolin) and drummer Mikey Intellisano. While they nimbly handle all of the songs in the 90-minute presentation, the players are at their best on the Led Zeppelin material (which, from a musical standpoint, is by far the most difficult to navigate). That the five musicians have plenty of rock-star swagger completes a most satisfying and enjoyable package.

‘Just Kidding’ with Vinnie Favorito

Through Sept. 3, Ocean is also offering “Just Kidding,” starring veteran standup comic Vinnie Favorito.

Staged every Saturday at 8 p.m. in the HQ dance club (which reverts back to a disco after the show), “Just Kidding” is a showcase for Favorito, a long-time Vegas attraction.

Each show begins with an opening act (a different one performs every week). Then Favorito takes over and delivers a set that is not just an endless recital of scripted gags. Instead, he displays his almost-supernatural ability to ad lib, or spontaneously create comedy via give-and-take with audience members.

It’s pointless to quote Favorito’s laugh lines. First of all, there would be too much context and background to describe here for the lines to make sense. And because it’s all based on spur-of-the-moment comments and responses from the customers, no two shows can be the same.

What all the performances have in common is that they are unapologetically adult in nature: The more politically correct and/or easily offended among us will likely not find “Just Kidding” entertaining in any way, shape or form. But for everyone else, suffice it to say that the Boston native’s ability to constantly conjure genuinely funny lines is astounding, and it makes “Just Kidding” a worthwhile way to spend the early part of a Saturday evening.

‘Masters of Illusions’ 

It wouldn’t be summer in Atlantic City without an extended-run magic show. This year’s entry is “Masters of Illusion” at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City.

Unlike so many wizard-fests of the past, “Masters of Illusion,” which runs through Sept. 4, is a rather modestly-budgeted affair. But “no frills” doesn’t mean “no thrills;” the three featured acts provide a breezy and entertaining, family-friendly program.

Each of the magicians work in different realms of their craft. While Chipper Lowell adds a heaping helping of goofy word play and prop comedy to his prestidigitation, Jonathan Pendragon’s work is far more traditional and Dan Sperry, who cuts quite a creepy figure with his zombie-Goth makeup and costume, gets a bit more extreme (especially with a cringey, but quite effective, bit involving dental floss, a giant Lifesaver candy and ostensibly sliced flesh).

Between the three of them, pretty much all corners of the magic world are covered including mind-reading, card tricks, levitation and the classic bisection of a female assistant that is the textbook definition of “illusion.”

“Masters of Illusion” may not be a groundbreaking exhibition, but it is certainly a lot of fun.

Ossu Japanese Tavern debuts at Tropicana

Tropicana Atlantic City continued its 2022 roll out of eight new food-and-drink outlets with the recent opening of Ossu Japanese Tavern, which specializes in small plates, yakatori and sushi and shashimi.

This culinary concept isn’t new to the space: It was formally occupied by Okatshe, uber-chef Jose Garces’ similarly focused outpost. While the menus of the two operations aren’t that different, a couple of significant physical changes have been wrought.

Okatshe’s location was gimmicked up as patrons had to enter, Prohibition-era speakeasy style, through a small replica of a Japanese candy store. If you didn’t know a restaurant existed behind the shop, you would never have found it. But Ossu’s entrance stands prominently on the edge of the casino floor.

And the current, dark-wood-dominated interior design is less sleek and modern, giving the space a more relaxed, informal vibe. 

The offerings include 12 small plates (e.g. delicately flavored chicken wings; edamame, tuna poke bowl), 10 yakatori (skewered bites; the filet is a meat-eater’s must-have!), and a large-enough selection of sushi (traditional and specialty) and shashimi to satisfy the most demanding diner. 

Perhaps most impressive is the adult-beverage list that boasts 48—count ‘em, 48—Japanese whiskeys and 15 varieties of sake.

Price points are in line with more upscale casino eateries, but portions are generous enough and a recent meal there found all of the items my dining companion and I ordered to be fresh and flavorful.

Ossu joins Wild Honey Smokehouse & Tavern at the Trop. Still to come are:

*Hash House A Go Go, the popular national chain that’s celebrated for its “twisted farm food” and large breakfast menu.

*The Royce Social Hall, which is billed as a combination American beer hall and “adult rec room” offering casual, shareable dishes along with a variety of games and activities including ping-pong, bowling and shuffleboard.

*il Verdi: Atlantic City’s third-longest continuously operating casino restaurant (after Capriccio at Resorts Casino-Hotel and Nero’s Italian Steakhouse at Caesars Atlantic City) will move from its smallish longtime home in a somewhat hidden corner of the casino floor to a much larger space overlooking the beach and ocean that was most recently home to Garces’ Olon.

*The Purple Zebra daiquiri bar.

*Gin Rickey’s, a lounge offering a “dueling pianos” format.

*Hawthorne & Cork, a traditional saloon offering bespoke cocktails and a selection of fine wine.

    • Chuck Darrow headshot

      Chuck Darrow has spent more than four decades as a writer and broadcaster specializing in covering the Philadelphia region's arts, entertainment and casinos. He is still afraid he may one day have to work for a living. 

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