Monday, November 26, 2012

(No.221) Pt 2 -- Las Vegas nocturne: Monet & Cirque du Soleil


"Las Vegas nocturne: Monet and the Cirque du Soleil

(Part 2 0f some advice for visitors to Las Vegas)"

by Alastair Rickard

In the first part of this series (column No. 220, posted Nov.22, 2012) I wrote about the actual role -- as distinct from Hollywood movie myth -- of the mobster Bugsy Siegel in the origins of the Las Vegas Strip of hotels and casinos.

When Steve Wynn, the most creative and sophisticated entrepreneur in the history of modern Las Vegas, built the Mirage Hotel in 1989, then the magnificent $1.6 billion Bellagio Hotel (centrally located on the Strip) in 1998 followed by Wynn Las Vegas in 2005 and its sister establishment Encore in 2008, he set the upscale standard for Strip resort hotels.

In the Bellagio Wynn included an art gallery where he displayed his own extensive collection. A major work in Wynn's personal collection was Picasso's Le Reve which he had bought in 1997 for $48 nillion. In 2006 he had arranged to sell it for $139 million to hedge fund player Steve Cohen. However, while showing the painting to some guests including ABC broadcaster Barbara Walters, Wynn (who has degenerative eye disease and is now legally blind) turned and put his elbow through the painting. No surprise, the sale was cancelled. The painting was repaired for $90,000 but is considered to have lost considerable market value.

After Wynn sold the Bellagio to the MGM chain the art gallery was maintained as a space for special exhibitions and is now called the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. It is not a particularly large space compared to a major public gallery but it does bring in interesting special exhibitions which change periodically. These are arranged with various galleries, especially the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (the MFA). To some extent the presence of the Bellagio Gallery as a public attraction on the Las Vegas Strip seems almost as odd as would be a string quartet as featured entertainment at the Palomino Club on Las Vegas Boulevard North..

Last year Pat and I attended "A Sense of Place: Landscapes From Monet to Hockney" at the Bellagio  and it was worthwhile viewing. Currently and until Jan. 6, 2013 the Bellagio Gallery is devoted to a special exhibiton called "Claude Monet: Impressions of Light". I would not be surprised if the exhibition's time at the Bellagio was extended a bit.

The current Monet exhibition is presented in partnership with the MFA Boston from whose large collection of Monet paintings came this exhibition of 20 of his works (although none of his Giverny 'water lillies') plus eight works by French painters Corot, Signac, Pissarro and Boudin.

Here's a trivia question: who was the only French Impressionist to have exhibited work in all eight Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris? Answer --- not Monet, which might well be the most common answer but Camille Pissarro.

The works in the exhibition at the Bellagio are particularly good at showing the evolution in Monet's style and subjects from the 1870s through the 1890s. Monet remains a much admired painter for very good reason as these paintings demonstrate. He remains Pat's favourite painter and he is a painter I, because of her, have come to appreciate much more than I once did.

If you are in Las Vegas and have an interest in art, don't miss the Monet exhibition at the Bellagio.

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The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil entertainment empire has become the leading supplier of big name 'permanent' shows to the major hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. So successful have Cirque shows been (Cirque's first Vegas show "Mystere" opened in 1993 and is still playing at Treasure Island Hotel) that big hotels have had huge theatres designed to house the new and highly engineered Cirque shows like "O" at the Bellagio, "KA" at the MGM Grand and "Love" at the Mirage.

There are seven Cirque shows playing in hotels on the Strip --  the official name of which is Las Vegas Boulevard and is not actually located in the City of Las Vegas per se. For the opening more than two years ago of the new Aria Hotel in the massive City Centre development Cirque came up with an Elvis Presley themed show called "Viva Elvis".  After various teething problems the Elvis show opened officially on Feb 19, 2010. Pat and I saw it when it opened in preview in between attempts to 'fix' it. (see our review of this show on RickardsRead.com, column No. 72: "Elvis: stumbling back to Vegas", posted Jan.7, 2010).

We did not like the show much and it was no surprise to us that this Cirque "Viva Elvis" show was a bit of a failure, never coming close to reaching 'permanent ' status and, after having audiences that declined to 30% of capacity, was closed on Aug. 31, 2012.  Trying to combine less than faithful versions of Elvis' hits as background for glorified Cirque acts did not work well: not enough Elvis for aging Presley fans. I daresay an elaborate Elvis Presley tribute show at the Aria or even the Hilton (where he had performed in Vegas) would have been greeted with more sustained enthusiasm at much less cost.

The Aria Hotel had demanded from Cirque du Soleil a show to replace "Viva Elvis" to present in their large new theatre. Cirque du Soleil complied. It has now replaced its Elvis show with a show it claims has already toured and played to audiences exceeding 1.5 million: "Zarkana". It opened officially on Nov.1, 2012 and seems to have been well received by audiences so far -- although it is still early days to try to gauge its staying power. The show was indeed fairly well received by the audience members with whom we attended it in early Nov.

"Zarkana" is essentially a series of tradtionial circus acts (e.g., juggling, trapeze, balancing, acrobatic et al) presented within the very loose framework of a tissue thin 'plot' backed by music and lyrics based on a created language ( a dialogue approach used in "O" and "KA", although it should be noted that dialogue in any of these Cirque shows is irrelevant to the show itself). I find occasional speaking indistinctly in the 'words' of a non-existent language both risible and irritating; Pat does not.

The circus performers are superb. Pat, who is a Cirque du Soleil fan of the first order, gives "Zarkana" a rating of 8.5 out of 10. By comparison she gives "KA" and "O" (each of which she has seen twice) ratings of 10 and 9, respectively. She gives Cirque special credit for the stage design of "Zarkana" as well as its movements and visual special effects.

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There are so many shows (big and small) on and off the Strip available to the Las Vegas visitor that virtually no live entertainment taste, no matter how exalted or pedestrian, will search in vain for satisfaction (check out the various sites listing entertainment like www.Vegas.com).

However anyone considering a first visit to Las Vegas, if that visit is motivated solely or mainly by the entertainment on offer, should understand this: the cost of good seats for major Cirque or similar shows or for taking in big name celebrities doing a couple of shows over a weekend can be substantial. On our recent trip, for example, we took in a Friday night show at the Mirage by comedian Lewis Black. In our view he was excellent and worth the tariff -- but then like many standup comics he's an acquired taste.

If you are a Cirque du Soleil fan consider joining (at no cost) the Cirque Club. You will receive not just news of Cirque activities in Vegas and around the world, you will be informed directly of special offers and information about shows. This can be financially advantageous. For example: we saved $60 a seat on premier seats buying tickets to "KA" online direct from  Cirque compared with the price on offer for the same category of seats for the same day from the theatre box office at the MGM Grand where "KA" plays.

One can join Cirque du Soleil at: www.cirquedusoleil.com

Another tip: consider joining  the 'points' program called Total Rewards (no fee) available from the Caesars Entertainment/Harrah's chain of hotels/casinos. It operates several of the hotels on the Strip including Caesars Palace, the Flamingo, Harrah's, the Imperial Palace, Paris, and Bally's  as well as casinos and hotels elsewhere.

As I said in Part 1 of this column (No.220) we regard the Flamingo Hotel -- among the hotels actually located on the Strip (many hotels in Las Vegas are not) -- the one which best combines price, value, central location on the Strip (an important consideration) and Monorail access.

The volume of Total Rewards points one earns from spending in the hotels is fairly unimpressive unless one gambles a good deal. The points also seem to expire relatively quickly. But you will get offered room rate discounts as a Total Rewards member. Also: merely holding a Total Rewards membership qualifies one for a 5% discount with the Norwegian Cruise Line, a significant saving.

For Total rewards, visit www.totalrewards.com/program

The other major hotel chain on the Strip, MGM, also has a program that parallels Total Rewards. It is called M life. The website is www.mlife.com


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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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