Thursday, January 7, 2010

(No.72) Elvis: stumbling back to Las Vegas

Having just seen "Viva Elvis" I was interested to read recent media references to this new Cirque du Soleil show being mounted in Las Vegas at the new Aria Hotel theatre. It is located in the $9 billion CityCenter complex which just opened on Las Vegas Boulevard (aka 'the Strip') between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo hotels following completion delays caused by financing problems for this monument to excess.

Surprisingly, for a show whose performers began arriving in Las Vegas back in early August 2009, there are now in January 2010 still major problems with the "Viva Elvis" production (the 7th Cirque show in Las Vegas). This was apparently evident even in the special 18 minute preview staged for the media on Dec 18. This timing was reportedly at the insistence of the Aria Hotel/CityCenter folks who wanted the twice delayed show opened in mid-Dec. to coincide with and help draw attention to the high profile opening of the CityCenter complex itself. However the formal gala opening of the Elvis show is postponed (for the second time) and rescheduled to Feb. 19. One of the formal opening dates (now foregone) was to have been Jan 8 to mark the 75th anniversary of Presley's birth.

Like several of the larger Vegas strip hotels, the newly opened Aria has its own theatre, a large one seating 1800. It is an impressive venue but differs from the other Cirque purpose-built theaters in Vegas in being a traditional arch stage quite unlike either the thrust or the 360 degree performance spaces the Cirque performers use so effectively in "Mystere" ( the original Cirque Vegas show still playing at the Treasure Island Hotel), "O" (the bellagio), "Ka" (MGM Grand) and "Love" (the Beatles-themed show at the Mirage).

After Pat and I arrived in Vegas for a holiday visit we went to the Aria theatre and determined that the Elvis show was indeed being performed for the public contrary to some published reports we had read, seemingly corroborated by difficulty accessing the online booking system. The preview performances which had just begun were to continue over the holidays but followed by a two week return to rehearsals after Jan. 3. While the preview ticket prices were somewhat lower than the scheduled tariff after the official opening they were far from a bargain and there were none of the discounts available for admission to some of the longer running Cirque shows in Vegas.

The "Viva Elvis" show we saw ran for a bit longer than the usual Cirque show length of 90 minutes (this allows for 2 shows per evening). While Cirque successfully married its particular approach to the music of the Beatles in "Love", in doing so it still employed a full measure of its tried and true circus-type acrobatic and gymnastic elements. The Elvis show has thus far, through the various changes made to it up to the performance we watched after Christmas, remained a largely unsuccessful mix of occasional circus elements with Broadway style dance company production numbers, with all the elements sprinkled -- like raisins in a naval plum duff -- over the Elvis tunes, sometimes with pictures and film clips as stage background. Elvis' recorded hits played in the show have actually been diminished in their quality and in audience enjoyment by an annoying 'enhancement' of the originals with added instrumentation, all played at a volume so great that an audience member in the central orchestra section of the theatre is literally able to feel his seat vibrate.

The show's depiction of Presley's life is disjointed and often opaque. It presents continuous Elvis music, some of it sung in turn by one of three female vocalists, except for occasional monologues delivered by an actor portraying Presley's manager Colonel Tom Parker. He replaced an approach which apparently featured four characters who would narrate the story: Elvis' mother Gladys, his father Vernon plus a younger and older Elvis.

The Parker character, fairly well done in appearance and delivery, tries but largely fails to tie the show together, to give it some sort of narrative coherence. This is far from an easy task at which to succeed when the show's elements include, for example, male dancers dressed as cowboys prancing about with hobby horse heads on sticks and other 'cowboys' twirling ropes set afire. The challenge remained unmet.

The use of Colonel Parker as a narrator is understandable since the chronology of Presley's life presented in the show hops around and essentially ends with his marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu in 1968 -- to which is appended a show-ending number marking his arrival as a Las Vegas performer at the International Hotel (renamed the Las Vegas Hilton since 1971). For this dance production number the Cirque athletes and dancers (female as well as male) are dressed as Elvis. It should be noted however that "Viva Elvis" does not employ an actual Elvis impersonator; curious when one remembers that Vegas probably has more Elvis impersonators working as 'tribute' artists in venues large and small around Vegas than anywhere in the world.

The 'revised' version of the show we saw would doubtless satisfy the older diehard Elvis fans, the sort who cherish the thought of visiting Graceland and pretending to be 17 again. We had just such a couple sitting next to us who applauded almost continuously throughout the show, even yelling "encore" at the end of the show when the cast of 50+ were taking a final bow. However, judging by the somewhat tepid overall audience reaction to "Viva Elvis" in comparison with the reactions we have observed at other Cirque shows and if the Aria Hotel's theatre is to be filled twice nightly indefinitely it will perforce need to draw like the other Vegas Cirque shows on a wide audience. "Viva Elvis" still requires a great deal of work if it is to hit that objective.

A necessary focus of change to the show will involve for its creative team a need for clarification, indeed a decision about what sort of show is to be presented.

Is it to be the sort of presentation that fans of Cirque du Soleil have come to expect, one with unspoiled recordings of Elvis hits as background? Or will it be a broadway-style musical production about Elvis? Or will it be a musical tribute show to Elvis embracing aspects of his life tied to selected Top 20 hits?

Based on the show we saw, "Viva Elvis" is neither fish nor fowl. The expensive looking show interesting mainly as an unsuccessful attempt to pay homage to a rock and roll icon. It was a colourful theatrical stew -- substantial but ultimately unsatisfying.

Alastair Rickard