I was only familiar with Terry Fator from clips of him winning “America’s Got Talent” eleven years ago. He parlayed that into a regular gig (and a theater named after him) in Las Vegas, where he’s played for the last decade. Several of my friends have seen and raved about him, so I thought I’d give him a chance and went to see him at The Mirage.
He began the show coming down a staircase, singing in his own voice, backed by a seven-piece band. He then joked about people who have heard him singing through his characters, both on TV and in person, yet are surprised when they hear him solo, commenting, “I didn’t know you could sing!” Yes, he can.
As a ventriloquist and impressionist, Fator is much better as the former than the latter. There’s no denying his voice-throwing skills, and even if you stare at his lips while he’s doing his characters, you can’t see him give anything away. He also has terrific timing as he switches voices while talking to himself. Throughout the evening, as Fator switches on and off through a dozen puppets, he keeps everything light and somewhat corny. His material is perfect for the average Vegas crowd, in that it is never edgy or even mildly offensive. The closest he got was an Anthony Weiner penis joke that had me shaking my head, wondering why he’s still doing lines about a guy who hasn’t been in the news for a long time. Time to update the act, Terry.
That’s a problem when he gets to Donald Trump. The night I was there we were in the midst of days of non-stop coverage of immigrant children being locked up in cages due to Trump’s cruel policies. But inside Fator’s theater, it’s as if the story didn’t exist. His Trump jokes went only as far as making fun of the guy’s hair, complete with the puppet’s wig popping up in front. Worse, Fator doesn’t have the Trump voice down. It was painful (for me, not for the rest of the crowd, which ate it up) because I find nothing about Trump funny — and that includes all of the monologue time spent on him by Colbert, Noah, Meyers, Kimmel, etc.
Also not good were Fator’s impressions of Elton John, Michael Jackson, and Paul McCartney. They both sounded like generic imitations and the puppets only slightly resembled the subjects. Fator did a medley of Elton’s hits while projecting real photos of him on the surrounding screens, and the difference was clear. As for McCartney, he was brought on at the end of the Michael Jackson segment of the show (which included another medley) to sing their hit duet “The Girl Is Mine.” If he hadn’t told us he was doing Jackson, I would’ve guessed it was Mike Tyson.
On the other hand, Fator absolutely nailed Robin Gibb singing an old BeeGees song, Garth Brooks doing “Friends In Low Places,” and Aaron Neville. The latter came as a surprise during a bit Fator did with his Elvis impersonator character, who insisted on singing a Neville song. The contrast of the puppet, in a white Presley-like jump suit, hitting the high notes a la Neville made me laugh out loud.
There was a moment towards the end of the show that I thought was going to ring the Too Sappy bell. Fator asked anyone in the audience who’s served in the military to stand up and take a bow. Then he did the same with anyone who’s been a first responder. I cringed as he announced he was going to sing a song he’d written and recorded for all of them. But then, as he sang, the projection screens showed images of the charities to which Fator donates all the money from the merchandise he sells, finishing with footage of one Iraq vet who sustained such bad injuries that he couldn’t walk. As he finished the song, Fator said he wanted to show us more about that soldier, for whom a charity had been able to use the donated resources to buy an exoskeleton that allowed the veteran to get around — and even walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. Well, that got me, just as it was designed to. It didn’t make me want to buy one of his Winston The Impersonating Turtle puppets in the lobby, but I did leave with a better feeling about Fator.
I have seen lots of supremely talented ventriloquists, from legends like Paul Winchell and Shari Lewis to Wayland Flowers and Jay Johnson to Ronn Lucas and Jeff Dunham. Terry Fator is certainly in their league and deserves everything that’s come his way.
Now he just needs to hire better writers to make the words he puts into the mouths of his puppets a lot funnier.