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Profile: Gina Gleason, guitarist, Michael Jackson ONE
Story by Lonn M. Friend
Even amid a hundred dancers, gymnasts and acrobats, giant screens, blinding lights and all the other eye-popping stage sensations, you cannot miss the shredding warrior princess with the skyscraping up-do and eight-inch platforms wielding a bullion-hued six-string. If you’ve had the electric pleasure of seeing Michael Jackson ONE at Mandalay Bay, you know what I’m talking about. But who I’m talking about? Therein lies the riff.
At 11 p.m. sharp, the late-show performance concludes with MJ’s unifying classic “Black or White” as the sold-out audience rises in a standing-O. Thirty minutes later, I’m met at the theater entrance by a five-foot-three brunette clad in Phillies baseball cap, blue jeans, Chuck Taylors and a Pantera shirt. Gina Gleason. “Dude, let’s get a drink,” the 22-year-old giggles. And it’s off to Frankie’s Tiki Room, her favorite dive bar.
Later, taking a sip from an exotic flaming rum concoction suggested by the heavily tatted bar mistress, the Philadelphia native tells her story. “I answered a Facebook ad that said Cirque du Soleil was looking for a female guitar player. I’d never heard of Cirque, had no idea what the gig was for, but thought, ‘Hey, this is cool. I’ll give it a shot.’ So I made a three-minute video of me jamming on the sofa in my mom’s basement in Philly and sent it in. I guess they dug it because they wrote me back asking for more clips, specifically Michael Jackson riffs, like the solos in ‘Beat It’ and ‘Dirty Diana.’ A month later, I was on my way to work and my cell rang. ‘So, Gina, how’d you like to move to Las Vegas and be in the Michael Jackson show?’ I almost hit the car in front me!”
That was in the spring of 2012. For the heavy-metal tomboy who made zero coin but lots of fans gigging around the tri-state area in the all-girl tribute band Misstallica, the past two years have been a lightning ride. “I went to Montréal — Cirque headquarters — and lived there for six months as ONE was being created. The first day I walked into this huge warehouse, tons of props and pieces of equipment. It was like NASA space camp! A minute ago I was a 19-year-old student living at home and taking the train to Temple University. Now I’m in this surreal gigantic dorm community in the Canadian countryside with hundreds of amazing performers, meeting choreographers, coaches, costume designers, technicians, makeup artists, stylists — man, I’d never even worn lipstick!”
A Ramones video comes on the monitor behind the bartender and Gina lights up even more. “I played drums in a punk band in Philly called Emily Pukis and the Vagrants,” she laughs. “That’s why I love this bar so much, because it reminds me of the punk clubs in Asbury Park where I grew up.”
Gina’s dad, a big Elvis fan, bought her that first Squire electric when she was 12. She’s come a long way but is keenly aware that the ride won’t always be magical and smooth. “I’d only been to Vegas once before landing the ONE gig and moving my life here,” she says. “My band played the Wild West Casino for, like, 20 locals, and two of ’em got arrested before our set was over. But me and Leanne Martz (from Misstallica) got a brand new group called Fever Red, and we’ll be playing around town this summer. On my evenings off from ONE, of course.” Time off also finds her riding motorcycles with friends: “I love cruising through Lake Mead and around Boulder City,” she says. “There’s a lot to see out there, and it’s great to escape from the city.” You might find her on East Fremont, too — “kinda reminiscent for me of some cool parts of Philly” — but probably not taking in the party scene on the Strip. “Rather stay home, write songs and practice my guitar.”
On June 29, ONE celebrated its first year. “I’m still not super good at walking on those platform heels, but I’m getting better,” she confesses. “Wearing that heavy gold outfit and crazy wig is way outside my comfort zone and not who I really am, but when I’m on that stage, playing those amazing songs twice a night for thousands of people, I’m all in.”
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