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by Marty Demarest & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "T & lt;/span & ina Turner is going to sing live," Jimmy Emerson assures me. Emerson is the host of "An Evening at La Cage," arriving this week at Northern Quest Casino. As host, Emerson will be sharing the stage with the likes of Diana Ross, Cher, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. And the truth is that most of the stars will be lip-syncing. Madonna, Dolly Parton, Celine Dion -- they'll all be faking it.





But Tina Turner -- her pipes are real. "His name is Wendall Jackson," Emerson continues. "When we were in Brazil doing some promotions, we couldn't find our CD for him to lip-sync to. He was dressed like Tina, and the audience wanted Tina and he said 'What am I going to do?' and I said 'Sing it live!' and threw him the mic and a star was born. He's done it live ever since."





The men of "An Evening at La Cage" are masters at changing genders. With a few pieces of fabric (painstakingly tailored), some shoes (a few sizes large) and plenty of makeup ("plenty," Emerson assures me), they've refined the art of making a woman. Within a few moments of the show's opening, the audience will be treated to a complete transformation onstage. A little bit of hair. Some makeup. A dress. After that, it's all an act.





"There are so many shows that pretend to be La Cage," Emerson continues. "And they're not. We consider these to be the top impersonators in the world."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he standard La Cage has set is remarkable. In Las Vegas, where every act wants a home and every hotel wants a moneymaker, La Cage has remained a headline draw at the Riviera for more than 20 years. The secret to the revue's success has to do with the dedication of its cast. Living as a woman -- even only for a few hours onstage -- isn't easy.





"It's tough because of the costumes," Emerson says. "We all have to carry our boy clothes as well as our costumes. We're not transsexuals, just female impersonators. So most of us have a full male wardrobe and then a female wardrobe."





"I'm traveling pretty heavy," says Chad Michaels, who performs as Cher and Celine Dion. "One large suitcase and a storage tub -- the costumes and the shoes take up a lot of room. And I have the large white coat that Cher opened her last tour with... At least with La Cage the show is set, so I'll only need to bring a few costumes. When I work on my own, I've probably got 35 to 40 Cher costumes, which all involve different wigs and hair colors. I try to rotate my repertoire, and that's four or five different months of Cher.





"It's a full-time job," Michaels continues. "I work five or six nights a week. During the day I'm sewing, mixing music, styling wigs, creating new numbers for Cher and Celine. You have to devote a lot of time to it. Doing impersonations is funny to a lot of people. You can go onstage and look like a man in a dress, or you can go and convince someone that they got a sitting with Cher for five minutes."





"We've got Jennifer Lopez doing a dance number," Emerson says. "To find one of the newer divas, you need to find somebody who's pretty dedicated to looking thin and moving like a woman. We can't cheat and have a real woman do the act. We want the wow factor -- 'Wow, I can't believe that's a man' -- when we leave the show dressed as men."





"I've been a 15-year study," Michaels says of his relationship to Cher. "I've gone to the concerts live, I've watched the videos and television appearances. After 15 years, the mannerisms become second nature.


"But I'm going to be 36 next year," Michaels laughs. "I'm waiting for the bomb to drop on my waist."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he fun of impersonation -- seeing a celebrity reduced to a few wearable objects -- is not lost on the cast of La Cage, however. As devoted as Chad Michaels is to perfecting Celine Dion's act, he's not oblivious to the inherently campy elements. "I don't turn any of my numbers into comedy numbers," he says. "But Celine is a whole different ball game. She's very masculine, which lends itself easily to me. She's very powerful on stage, the way she holds her body and pounds her chest. So occasionally I'll add an extra chest pound, just because it's a little goofy, and that's part of Celine."





Emerson, meanwhile, as the show's host, has no problem with mocking the famous habits of the thin young beauties who share the stage with him. He's taken the stage as Madonna, adding her signature moves to his plus-sized frame. And performing as Roseanne is a "natural fit," he says.





"Over the years, because of my size," Emerson says, "I've also hosted as Anna Nicole Smith. She's glamorous anyway, with big hair and lots of makeup. But I discovered that if I talked like Marilyn Monroe messed up on drugs, Anna came out perfectly. I'm also able to do a send-up of any of the glamorous characters. I used to do Cher in a thong."





Emerson also hosts as a character of his own creation: Tammy Spraynett. "She was one of the first acts I created, years ago in Texas, before I even moved to Las Vegas. I made her up based off of Tammy Wynette, but she's also a compilation of the big-haired country-western singers of the '70s. And when Dolly's boobs got involved...."





"An Evening at La Cage" is at Northern Quest Casino, Tuesday-Thursday, Oct. 17-19, at 8 pm. Tickets: $25. Also Friday-Saturday, Oct. 20-21, at 8:30 pm. Tickets: $35. Call: 325-SEAT.

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