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Big laughs from Little voices at Tropicana Las Vegas

It’s the 1950s. Ottawa, Canada is the mise-en-scène. Imagine a middle school homeroom full of students when at once the class clown draws a bead on the teacher and attempts – covertly or otherwise – to imitate the adult figure at the chalkboard. Ensuing laughter from the back row? Teacher mulling over disciplinary action?

Fast-forward a handful of decades to the Laugh Factory comedy theater inside the Tropicana Las Vegas where Rich Little explains how he more or less got his career start through impersonations at school. And yes, he went to school in Ottawa, Canada.

With his career now well on in years, Little’s act is focused to a great degree on looking back at a skill set that made him a household name. His Tropicana Las Vegas gig is essentially a one-man show save for the presence of several television monitors in the room delivering playback footage from years’ worth of comedy sketches — these are cued up to sync with his onstage shtick. A sole keyboardist provides musical emphasis and light commentary when needed à la talk-show co-host fashion.

But he otherwise owns the intimate Laugh Factory stage through convincing artistry, skill and expertise. His highly entertaining, holistic impersonations cover the likes of film and television luminaries including John Wayne, Johnny Carson and Clint Eastwood, as well as entertainers such as George Burns, Dean Martin and Carol Channing in addition to presidential vocalizations of Nixon, Reagan and Clinton. Comedic one-liners keep the laughter coming but audience members are more likely drawn to his sheer ability for spellbinding recreations that are so much more than wax figures from Tussaud’s attraction.

He introduces one very compelling recreation of Paul Lynde, the center square of the 70s game show “The Hollywood Squares” that looks and sounds so authentic one expects then-showmaster Peter Marshal to suddenly enter stage left. His exact voice duplicate of “60 Minutes” news commentator Andy Rooney is so eerily faithful he nearly summons the curmudgeon back to life.

The one-hour, stand-up performance closes with a singing rendition of Neal Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” that has audience members clapping their hands rhythmically to the one-time Billboard top five hit. And yes, Little can belt out a surprisingly decent note.

Voice imitation and people impersonation are an ability Little commands so well one could easily believe the original’s DNA had been injected into his gifted cells thus creating a Doppelganger capable of spot-on recreations of human quirks, mannerisms and vocal cues to the extent that many believe he is indeed what voice-peer Mel Blanc  referred to as “The Man of a Thousand Voices.”

After all these years, Little’s look-alike, sound-alike talent is still remarkable and demonstrates an understanding of his craft that can only come from a thorough study and knowledge of his subjects. His voice sounds fresh, dynamic and strong. The delivery of his material is rhythmic, the pauses well-timed, his energy abundant.

At 77, the seasoned comic and entertainer may be adding years to his on-stage life by having deeply internalized the persona of so many other human beings that it’s created a life-force multiplier of sorts. And that’s okay as long as Little voices keep coming.