The more thongs change ... 

Here's a startling confession: I never set foot inside Zuma Beach. Unlike a lot of other people, I didn't bear the club any especial ill will; every college kid deserves a place where he can look up a coed's dress and drink beer through a funnel. But it just wasn't for me. As The Pursuit of Happiness once sang, "I'm an adult now."

Last Thursday's grand opening of Tabu -- owner Mark Nejame's successor to the Zuma throne -- widened the demographic reach to include implant jobs of all ages. When the new nightspot's doors opened at 8:30 pm, the line of invited guests ran down the block, making Orange Avenue a procession of off-duty exotic dancers and older temptresses whose crinkly skin bespoke too many trips to the tanning salon. Their escorts were medium-to-high rollers with neck chains and collar issues (the "band" and "open" varieties beat ties by a wide margin). And here you thought "A Night at the Roxbury" was a work of fiction.

Nejame's staff had worked slavishly to have Tabu up and running by Thursday, and they made it -- barely. The smell of fresh paint attacked out nostrils when we were admitted inside. A friend who had worked on the construction crew confessed that the end product was all but held together with spackle and tape.

Tabu's sinful red walls, we saw, envelop a layout that boasts more bars than Sing Sing, with plenty of lounging furniture arranged in key corners. (It worked for Sapphire.) Black-and-white photographs capture models in softcore fetish poses. Twin stairwells lead to a multilevel balcony that teems with nooks and crannies. The club already has one thing going for it: If the regular clientele turns out to be an embarrassment, there are plenty of places for the rest of us to hide. It's a great place to see and not be seen.

South Beacham?

Capitalizing on fond memories of the Beacham Theater is one-half of Nejame's business plan. I couldn't quite place the room as the site where a hot new act named Soundgarden had once opened for now-forgotten space-metalers Voivod, but at least one partier was moved to recall the heyday of "Aahz" as dance tracks pumped from the speakers at levels that threatened to extinguish the candles placed on the front bar.

Nejame's second, seemingly contradictory goal is to court an upscale, South Beach-style crowd. The regular attendance of sports stars and other celebrities is promised, and the idea honestly doesn't enrapture me. Based on past experience, combining Orlando clubs with luminaries means that someone's going through a plate-glass window sooner or later.

Thursday's star power was supplied by Backstreet Boy (and Tabu co-investor) Howie Dorough. My attempt to enter his upstairs enclave of friends and relatives was thwarted by a bodyguard: I wasn't "part of the family," it was explained. I didn't try to push my luck by pointing out that we have the same hips.

Howie's sister, Pollyanna, was the first musician to grace the Tabu stage, performing a highly undistinguished set of Latin-flavored pop that actually moved bodies away from the dance floor. Packed wall-to-wall in its first few hours of operation, Tabu had already thinned out noticeably by the time the Backstreet Sis got busy. A huge throng of hopefuls waited outside, barred from entering the club by the antsy fire department. Ingress was eventually granted to those who stuck it out, but the attendance numbers never fully recovered.

Howie D himself took the occasion to debut his Latin-orchestra side project, drawing furious whoops from fans who didn't mind at all that he wasted a nine-piece band (and four dancers) on a medley of Santana's "Oye Como Va" and "Smooth," followed by a charge through the Enrique Igelsias and Ricky Martin songbooks. (Those are some deep roots.) The performance was part of Dorough's Lupus 2000 charity campaign, a memorial to his sister -- the other one -- who died from the disease. Great cause; shame about the music.

Best fete forward

Nejame put on the dog for the kick-off party, treating his guests to sushi and other delicacies, having the Drums of Umöja play ethnic rhythms in the front foyer and setting aside an alcove for Emily the Strawberry Girl, a reclining blonde who was covered in fruit and chocolate. Plumed female trapeze artists hung on perches a full story above the dance floor. (Ladies and gentlemen ... the Wallendas on X!)

A one-time-only soiree stocked with such amenities isn't the best arbiter of a venue's ultimate success or failure; it's like trying to judge the potential of a marriage based on a single New Year's Eve date. When the club kicks into its promised six-nights-a-week schedule, the paying customers will decide if Tabu becomes Orlando's hot destination or merely Roxy West.

Watching the action from the lower balcony, defense attorney (and nudie-bar champion) David Wasserman was already prepared to cast his vote. The lawyer was just back from a trip to -- yes -- South Beach, and he grandly proclaimed the new club our only option to rival that community's thriving nightlife.

"Someone like me will come here," Wasserman said.

Chalk up another point in Tabu's favor. If anyone gets into trouble on the premises, a lawyer will always be close at hand.


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