RENO — What to you get when you fuse a kid from Nebraska with a guitar and world of musical influences?
The result is “Benise: Nights of Fire,” playing through April 1 in the Eldorado Showroom.
Headed by guitar picker Roni Benise, “Nights of Fire” is a colorful, multicultural stage show that blends a range of Latin and Eastern music and dance styles — combined with influences from Benise’s own musical journey.
That journey began on a farm outside Grand Island, Neb. Like many American children, 11-year-old Benise loved rock ‘n’ roll, especially the guitar parts. So he decided to learn how to play.
“ ‘Smoke on the Water’ was my first song on guitar,” Benise said backstage Tuesday before the show at the Eldorado. “That was the first riff I could figure out. After that, I learned everything by ear.”
As a young man in the late 1990s, Benise decided he wanted to pursue the rock star dream so he moved to Los Angeles. It was there that he discovered the playing style that would launch his career.
“I fell in love with Spanish guitar,” he said. “I heard it one day on the radio and I just put all my electric guitars in the closet.”
Armed with his new type of playing, Benise was shot down at nearly every club in L.A. That’s when he took to playing on the streets where he met other like-minded musicians and started to gather a following. He produced a CD, which he said sold pretty well and enabled him to keep paying for further ventures. In 2002, he organized a cirque-style show with other musicians and dancers and sold out a 2,000-seat theater. The money from that event funded the next, and so on. He filmed one of the shows and got it on PBS, where it attracted a large audience.
One TV special led to another, one CD to another, one world tour led to three more and the rest, as they say, is historia.
The “Nights of Fire” show in Reno includes a cast of four additional musicians and seven dancers. Accompanying Benise are Omar Lopez on violin, Gilberto Gonzalez on guitar, Mychal Lomas on bass and Cedric Leonardi on drums. Alongside Benise, Lopez is the show’s second stage stealer with his frantic, rapid-fire violin playing adding to the exotic sound.
The dozen or so numbers played during “Nights of Fire” are a combination of originals and pieces that have been adapted to Benise’s own unique style.
“We’ll take a song like ‘Besame Mucho’ and twist it. We turned it into a tango. And we take a song by the Gypsy Kings, ‘Bomboleo,’ and we make it into more of a Vegas, club song. We’ll always fuse something.”
“(Benise’s show has) grown in its scope,” said Kelly Parker, who has been the show’s assistant choreographer and a dancer for about seven years. “Ron himself has grown as an artist so, so much in that time and he’s exploring new things and new cultures and new sounds and so then that helps us on the choreographic side.”
While the music combines musical styles as filtered through Benise’s own personal flair, so too is the dancing an amalgamation of performers who have come and gone over the years. In the midst of choreographed dances are opportunities for each dancer to do their own personal improvisation, so every show is just a little different from the previous one.
“It’s the Benise show,” Parker said. “It’s not a flamenco show, it’s not a Cuban show. It is its own unique sort of blend.”
Benise’s troupe has also spent a lot of time traveling for the show. Part of the job has entailed filming vignettes that are projected behind the performers. These vignettes include Benise and various dancers in exotic locations such as at a palace in India or in a medieval bullfighting ring in Spain.
“It’s not easy to rent a bull ring,” Benise said with a laugh.
Then, of course, there is plain old touring. The group recently returned from performing in China where they filmed another PBS special that will be aired this summer.
“I have a problem with the food,” joked Rodolpho Diaz Utra, a Cuban-born dancer who previously traveled to Asia with the dance company Havana Nights. “That was hard for me. I’m Cuban, I’m used to rice and beans, you know what I mean? So it was kind of difficult for me but otherwise I love it.”
Performances of “Benise: Nights of Fire!” run Tuesday through Sunday at 7 p.m. with additional shows at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets prices start at $19.95 with dinner and show packages from $29.95. Seats are available online at www.eldoradoreno.com or by calling 800-648-5966 or 786-5700.