CBS takes a big gamble on oddly musical 'Viva Laughlin'

It's only fitting that the riskiest show of the fall season be set in Nevada.

Sure, everyone's chattering about another CBS show, "Kid Nation," a reality show that is cheaper to make and with a built-in audience curious to see what the fuss is about. But it's not as risky as the network's "Viva Laughlin," premiering Thursday, Oct. 18 (then moving to its regular slot next Sunday).

This show, a musical drama -- yes, you read that correctly! -- is quite another matter. It's based on the BBC show "Viva Blackpool," and no one will be ambivalent about it. Some critics loved it, others hated it, and still others are mystified by this very strange show.

The plot is clear-cut enough and the actors sincere, so none of that is mystifying. But when you're watching a show the second time around and you find yourself asking the dog (as no one else would remain in the room) if he could believe what he just saw -- well, that's a mystifying program.

The drama revolves around the likeable British actor Lloyd Owen ("Miss Potter") playing American Ripley Holden. A gambler, he has parlayed one convenience store into 13 and is trying to open a casino in Laughlin, Nev., 95 miles south of Vegas. His spread will have 1,300 rooms, seven restaurants and five pools. We meet Ripley as he's getting ready for the day. His home life is easy enough to relate to, as he has a lovely wife, Natalie (Madchen Amick, "Twin Peaks"), who looks too young to have a college-age daughter and a teenage son. The sullen daughter seems surgically attached to the phone.

Dad gives the boy a red sports car for his birthday, proving he is the coolest father. Ripley dons a white sports jacket (think Don Johnson in "Miami Vice"), but at least he keeps the sleeves at wrist length as he starts singing -- what else? -- "Viva Las Vegas."

Always a fun song, it's become Viagra's theme song, which may not be inappropriate for a show about casinos.

Ripley sings along with Elvis on his way to work, and Owen, like the other actors, seems to have a terrific time.

"This is the job of a lifetime," Owen says. "Standing on a casino table and singing Elvis Presley songs -- and I get a paycheck!"

Ripley makes his way through the under-construction casino, still singing. He jumps onto a gaming table to continue his song and makes movements such as finger pointing and winking. Though hopelessly corny, these gestures perfectly jibe with the Rat Pack vibe this show aims for.

Alas, Ripley's good mood is soon destroyed. Buddy, a major investor in his casino, is withdrawing his funds. It's clear from Buddy and Ripley's talk that they have a shared history. Turns out what they shared is Buddy's wife, Bunny (Melanie Griffith in a recurring role).

Desperate for money, Ripley turns to a king of Vegas, Nicky Fontana (Hugh Jackman, also recurring). Jackman has one of the great entrances of TV, as he alights from a helicopter, wearing a gray snakeskin suit, puffing a stogie and singing "Sympathy for the Devil."

It's about here one wonders where is the sympathy for the audience.

Jackman, who conquered Broadway a few seasons ago as Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz," moves and sings with the practiced ease of someone who has received standing ovations for just that. An executive producer on this show, Jackman looks as if he's relishing playing the big, bad boss.

Nicky knows why Ripley is there. He won't invest in Ripley's casino but is willing to buy it and make Ripley a manager.

No dice.

Like any seasoned gambler, Ripley calculates the odds and tries something else. He asks Bunny -- a negligee-clad, daytime-drinking floozy -- if she will use her wifely wiles to convince Buddy to reinvest.

"I love playing Bunny Baxter," Griffith says in her trademark little-girl voice. "There is no stopping her. It is so much fun, and it just keeps getting better and better."

We don't learn it in the pilot, but Griffith says, "Bunny works very hard at her life as a showgirl and just found the perfect husband, who was very rich, and she has been living the life of Riley and having anybody she wants. And she has a really good heart."

Though acting since childhood, Griffith is not known for singing. Yet she made her singing and dancing debut on Broadway four years ago.

"I went to decorate Antonio's dressing room when he was in 'Nine,'" she says of husband Antonio Banderas. "I looked across the street and there was 'Chicago,' and I thought maybe I could do that. I asked if I could have an audition, and they said that you don't need to, and I said, 'Oh, yes, I do.' It's not like I have a great voice for anything."

Griffith says she draws from a class she took decades ago that taught her "about singing onstage and to tell a story. It's not just about having a perfect voice."

Bunny will help Ripley on one condition: He must keep her company. He won't, so that naturally (in this alternate universe of the musical drama) leads to Bunny singing along with Blondie to "One Way or Another."

This scene was shot in a magnificent house that once belonged to Frank Sinatra, Owen says with a huge smile. His dad, the late actor Glyn Owen, used to play Sinatra songs for his son.

"There I was," Owen says, "singing in Sinatra's house. My dad would have died. Unfortunately, he was dead already."

Death strikes the pilot as well, as Buddy is murdered. Two baby-faced detectives investigate, and Ripley is a prime suspect.

Ultimately, Ripley proves his mettle as a gambler. He takes a huge chance, the sort of risk only a real gambler would even consider. As he risks it all, on a roulette wheel no less, we're treated to one final song. He sings "Let It Ride" by Bachman Turner Overdrive, as he lets his bet ride on the roulette wheel. By now, we're rooting for Ripley. As bizarre as the show is, one must give it props for fearless creativity. Still, it pretty much exemplifies the saying that what happens in Vegas should stay there.