Wheel of Fortune Live: A Puzzle Not Quite Solved
Cory Anotado takes a look at the latest touring simulacrum of a popular game show.
A few years ago, I was excited to take a look at The Price is Right Live, a traveling stage show adaptation of one of my favorite game shows. Just like a kid going to Disney Ice Capades every year (which I totally did), I was equally excited to see some of my most beloved television fixtures right in front of my eyes—familiar yet somewhat off, due to scale, budget or an amalgam of the two. And, while The Price is Right Live was by no means perfect, the production was fast-paced, felt very accurate to the show, and gave fans around the country the chance to see a simulation of their favorite game show.
So when I heard that Wheel of Fortune was going to embark on a similar tour across the country, I was equally intrigued. Wheel of Fortune has a very similar Middle-America attraction that The Price is Right does, and its low barrier of entry (can you read? can you play Hangman? let’s get you miked up) seemed like it would be a perfect fit for a traveling show. Coupled with what looked like the production team’s full support and far fewer props to lug around the country, I eagerly awaited my turn to try to spin the wheel.
Unlike when I went to Price is Right Live, in which Fremantle gave me the whole press hullabaloo, including interviewing the great Todd Newton and getting to spin the wheel, Wheel of Fortune Live never got back to me after an initial contact to interview host Mark L. Walberg. So, my experience with Wheel of Fortune Live started with me buying Amex Preferred Presale Tickets, at $51.99 a pop, for the Maryland Live Casino show on Saturday, September 24. Several packages were available for purchase, including VIP passes that allowed you to take a video with you spinning the 2/3rds-sized replica Wheel, along with some exclusive merchandise and a laminated ticket badge.
My best friend/BuzzerBlog historian Christian Carrion and I arrived at the Maryland Live Casino at approximately 6:30 on the button. We both wanted to play, so we lined up to register. A quick entry form and we were told to come back at 7:15 for doors opening. Between these two times, apparently, if you were a VIP person, this was the time to get your gear and your photos. We decided to find a place to pee, then get a drink. Christian found $3 on the bathroom floor. He then put it into a slot machine.
Once we were into the theater, we bought merchandise. The merch stand was, unsurprisingly, filled with Wheel of Fortune Live swag, from t-shirts to coffee cups. I bought a nice enamel pin and this $40 umbrella that I’m surprised I didn’t already own:
Then, finally, it was time to enter the Hall. The set was about what I expected a traveling stage show to look like: big ol’ puzzle board, big ol’ wheel, big ol’ logo. Earlier reports of the show’s staging showed a physical border to the puzzle-board, replete with LED lights, but some people in the BuzzerBlog Discord Channel noted that that was gone due to power usage issues. (If your stage has too much light-up stuff, the power grid can’t handle it and things’ll break.) At Maryland Live Casino and subsequent tour stops, it looks like the border is gone, replaced with a virtual version shown on their big ol’ puzzle board screen. It looks seamless and impressive. For a traveling stage show, all the elements didn’t seem so much smaller than what I’d expect to see on television, which wasn’t really the case for Price is Right Live, where the “big doors” looked like normal doors.
Don’t go to Wheel of Fortune Live expecting to play the game. Gearing up for the game, I researched the rules. Allegedly there was a planned audition test and if you passed it, you would be eligible to play. That wasn’t implemented when I went. If you registered, you were in the hopper to play. The pathway to play was: be one of 15 people to be called to play, and solve a toss-up puzzle. From an auditorium of I wanna say 300-500 people, your chances weren’t great. Neither I nor Christian, nor the fun drunk couple sitting next to us who were SHOCKED at how fast we solved puzzles, got called up to play. But that didn’t stop us from having fun.
The two-hour show was filled with what people came to see: Wheel of Fortune. The normal announcer for the show, LA Dodgers stadium host Dave Styles, had contracted COVID, so in his place was perennial game show announcing stalwart Randy West. Randy injected a little extra bit of Hollywood into the proceedings with the zhuhz and vigor of the classic game show announcers he studied under and worked alongside. Randy warmed up the crowd and hosted the Toss-Up Puzzle qualifiers. He also peppered the crowd with Wheel of Fortune trivia for prizes: ya boi won a t-shirt for knowing that the pilot of Wheel of Fortune was known as Shopper’s Bazaar. Chris won a WoF Live Keychain because his designated Audience Game member won a mini-game.
If you don’t get on stage, you still could win stuff, which I thought was a clever way of keeping people engaged in the show. Once a game was over, a random name was drawn, and that audience member won a prize along with the winner of the game. If someone won the Bonus Round at the end of the show, an audience member would win the exact same prize. At our show, a person who was very much a fan of the show (HE SOLVED. THE PUZZLES. LIKE THIS.) won a trip to Paris in the bonus round, which meant a lucky member of the audience ALSO won a trip to Paris. (I did not win a trip to Paris.)
The host for our episode was game show host and fan of game shows Mark L. Walberg. Mark’s effervescent charm and affability were on full display in a game he’s admittedly not used to hosting. Interacting with the contestants, his ability to find entertainment from the situations he and the contestants find themselves in on stage makes the show not just entertaining, but dynamic and special. And while there are still some intricacies with the fakakta rules of the game that Mark is still learning (at one point, a player who had a Wild Card at the end of a puzzle she didn’t solve had the Wild Card taken from her, which isn’t entirely accurate to the rules but it didn’t really affect the outcome of the game. Also, she spun the wheel with two hands like a troglodyte), his ability to connect with hundreds of fervent Wheel of Fortune fans directly in front of him make any mistakes seem at best scripted and ultimately harmless. In the event of Pat Sajak’s exit from the show, I would feel very comfortable lobbying The Powers That Be to give Mark L. Walberg the hosting gig.
To Mark’s Pat, there is a Vanna, actress and astronomy TikTokker Kalpana Pot, who was graceful and played the Vanna part very well. She even hyped up the crowd with an impassioned plea for excitement, which I’m willing to bet Vanna could never deliver genuinely. I would have loved to see Kalpana have a larger part of the show, as her interactions with Mark and the contestants brought a congeniality and warmth that Wheel of Fortune tends to lack.
For a traveling stage show, I am impressed with how accurate a lot of the production is to the television program. The Wheel is smaller and lacks dollar signs, but otherwise is identical. The board lacks a LED border and LIDAR lasers, but is otherwise identical. There’s a used letter board off the side of the stage that looks an awful lot like the actual show’s used letter board. There’s a little bonus round wheel (that might be a 1:1 simulation, actually). There’s the intro. There’s Changing Keys. All the sound effects are there. Contestants get printed stickers with their names on it to function as name tags. The graphics that appear on the scoreboard for Bankrupts and Lose a Turn look better than the generic graphics they have on the real show currently. The production team is clearly led by game show fans, as their attention to detail get my seal of approval.
I predict that the production will get smoothed out as the team learns more and more about the show. Ticket sales look somewhat sluggish heading into the colder months—a cursory glance at upcoming shows have lots of seats still available. If you’re a regular BuzzerBlog reader, chances are you’d have a very nice evening enjoying some live game show entertainment. Don’t go expecting to win big, but just like The Price is Right Live, the experience is more than worth the price of admission.
Wheel of Fortune Live continues its nationwide tour with stops in New England, New York, and the Midwest. Mark’s leg of the tour ends October 12 in Lynn, MA, and the tour’s other host, former American Idol Clay Aiken, picks up in Portland, ME on October 13. Tickets and VIP passes are available at WheelOfFortuneLive.com.