MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

In Las Vegas, all they'll need is 'Love' … and lots and lots of Beatlemaniacs

July 2, 2006
LAS VEGAS – Ever since George Jessel, Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat opened the showroom of the Flamingo Hotel, 60 years ago this Christmas, little more has been expected of audiences than a willingness to tip the maitre’d for a decent table. The performers did all the heavy lifting, and, for 90 minutes, no brain cells were sacrificed in the name of art.
Broadway-born musicals arrived and departed with some regularity over the ensuing decades, but none lasted long enough to cause producers to consider abandoning the Great White Way for the Neon Desert.
When Cirque du Soleil first came to town, in 1992, local wags wondered out loud if Las Vegas was ready for the kind of cerebral entertainment that already had enchanted audiences in such far flung cities as Montreal, Los Angeles, Paris, London and Tokyo. That question would be answered a year later when the troupe picked up the stakes of its trademark blue and yellow tent, pitched in a parking lot behind the Mirage, and found permanent shelter in a cavernous theater in the spanking-new Treasure Island.
Before “Mystere,” critics working the Las Vegas beat reserved words like “fantasy,” “hallucinogenic” and “psychedelic” to the Grateful Dead’s annual encampments at Sam Boyd Stadium … that, and Tony Orlando’s wardrobe. Intensely loud, brilliantly colorful and thoroughly hyperkinetic, “Mystere” challenged audiences in ways no production show had ever attempted, and it benefited, as well, from two other realities: it was as much fun for adults, as it was children; and the only place it could be seen was in Las Vegas.
More than anything else, however, “Mystere” was a confection. It tickled the senses in countless delightful ways, but all that was required of a ticket-holder was an active imagination. The same could be said of “O,” “Ka” and “Zumanity,” although the latter also demanded a tolerance of homo-eroticism, interracial groping and other deviations from America’s sexual mainstream.
“Love,” which just marked its official opening at the Mirage with a VIP gangbang, also can be enjoyed purely on the merits of its visual and aural pleasures. There are fewer edge-of-your-seat acrobatic thrills than one would normally expect from a Cirque show, but that void has been filled by George and Giles Martin’s truly hypnotic re-imagining of the Beatles repertoire. Indeed, one could sit through the entire show wearing a blindfold and still come away feeling rewarded by its revelatory soundtrack and the Mirage’s remarkable sound system.
It also is possible for marginal fans to enter the theater completely unaware of the re-editing of the Beatles songbook and leave 90 minutes later thoroughly entertained by Cirque’s talented troupe of acrobats, trapeze artists, clowns and dancers. Especially delightful are the scenes inspired by “Octopus’ Garden,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Hey Jude,” any one of which could be separated from the herd and represent “Love” on a television variety show (if such a thing existed, anymore). A thorough appreciation of all 28 vignettes likely would require more than a mere passing interest in the history and evolution of the Fab Four, as some of the material appears to double back on itself and the darkness at the core of the Beatles’ “White Album” is palpable in the performances.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but “Love” is the rare sensory experience that gets better with a healthy knowledge and understanding of the stimuli. Those Boomers who waited with bated breath for the release of every new Beatles single and album — and would obsess over gossip that spread like wildfire, even in a pre-Internet world – are the ones who will leave with the widest smiles on their faces. The cognoscenti already know that the merry moptops’ journey was less a magical mystery tour than a decade-long “Day in the Life,” with an elongated E-major chord punctuating the most tragic divorce in rock history.
This especially applies to any flower child who ever considered, however fleetingly, the possibility that Paul McCartney died during the creation of “Sgt. Pepper.” They’ll recognize all the helter-skelter moments, and get the symbolic references to the lads’ personal lives. They won’t need a scorecard to identify such characters as dealer-to-the-stars, Dr. Robert; John Lennon’s beloved mother, Julia, who was killed in a car crash; the shell-shocked Nowhere Men along Liverpool’s Penny Lane; the leather-jacketed Teddy Boys and Apple Scruff groupies; the Walrus, who may or may not have been Paul; Krishna, the mind-expander; the Hendersons and Mr. K of Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal; and, of course, Henry the Horse.
Finely tuned ears will have no trouble hearing snatches of more than a hundred other songs, demos and alternate takes – as well as, the laughter and sound effects from “Piggies,” “Helter-Skelter,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Cry Baby Cry.” “Good Morning, Good Morning” – which accompany recording-session banter and snippets from press-conferences The original lyrics to George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are restored and overlaid on a heart-breaking orchestral backing; the vocal track to “Within You, Without You” pulsates to percussion from “Tomorrow Never Knows,” even as a billowing sheet is passed hand-over-hand in the audience, putting thousands of viewers in the same communal bed.
Each seat in the audience has been fitted with a half-dozen speakers – out of a total of 12,000 – and the clarity is such that new notes, words and cues emerge from the ether of 40-year-old recording sessions. Even so, no one should expect the production’s many creative conceits to jump out and hit them on the head with a dead fish. A revisiting of the Beatles songbook beforehand is highly recommended (Playbills providing wisdom gleaned from the press kit also would be a good addition) for anyone considering the sizable investment in a ticket to “Love.”
Rabid fans and trivia buffs will understand this, going in. The challenge faced by the marketing teams of Cirque du Soleil and MGM Mirage is to make everyone else feel welcome.
Early reviews have been very favorable, and the critics’ superlatives will look good on ads. Las Vegas is a town where brand names and logos carry far more weight than multi-syllabic words, however, and any marquee that blares “Beatles,” “Cirque du Soleil” and “Mirage” will be noticed. Positive buzz and word-of-mouth, however, are essential for the longterm success of the $140-million “Love”-fest.
Cirque du Soleil has yet to experience disappointment in Las Vegas, let alone failure. If memory serves, all of its non-resident shows likewise have done very well.
Like Celine Dion’s legion of fans – or Barry Manilow’s, for that matter — Beatles enthusiasts almost certainly will beat a path to the doors of the Mirage. If word gets out to less-informed audiences that they may be required to do a little homework to get their money’s worth from “Love” – tickets range from $69 to $150 – well, who knows?
“Zumanity” demonstrates how attuned to reality is Cirque’s creative team, as well as its willingness to adapt to whims of its audiences. The New York-New York’s showcase production represented a huge risk both for Cirque and MGM Mirage, if only because it voluntarily limited the marketplace to open-minded adults, 18 and over.
In Las Vegas, where most tourists are encouraged to check their brains at the airport or border, such a decision could have spelled financial disaster. In fact, “Zumanity” has become a fixture on the Strip … nudity, drag queens, group gropes and all.
It has the distinction, however, of being the only Cirque production to have undergone a significant creative overhaul. It began nearly two years ago, when artistic director Ria Martens made the mile-long leap from the Treasure Island to New York-New York, in order to evaluate “Zumanity” and streamline its narrative.
Although many of the set pieces made the cut – the Water Bowl dance, the gasp-inducing contortionist, a slithery orgy and an enchanting ribbon ballet – others didn’t fare as well. The running Puritan gag bit the dust, as did the climax, in which an elderly couple are “randomly picked” from the audience to waltz to their eternal love among the semi-nude bodies. (A couple still is recruited, but the finale doesn’t hinge on their acceptance by the crowd.)
Then, too, the flashy and highly touted Thierry Muglar fashion strut that opened each performance, and which served to introduce each character, was wisely moved to the end of the show. As such, it gave the audience a focus for their applause.
By jumping directly into the meat of the show, Martens also was able to take some of weight off the shoulders of Mistress of Seduction Joey Arias. The raunchy and rotund Botero sisters were made more prominent, introducing an air of classic burlesque to go with the overall “divine decadence”/Berlin-cabaret theme.
“The show was never in danger,” Martens asserts. “All shows mature differently, but the changes here were more pronounced. We kept the acts that always worked, added some new ones and put them in a different order.
“I wanted to bring out strongest elements of the artists, not all of whom were being used to their full potential. There was no real ending, so we moved the catwalk to the end.”
The changes have made “Zumanity” a much zippier and audience-friendly show. More to the point, none of the ribald elements has been diluted or neutered. Audiences keep coming back for more.
For the next couple of months, “Love” will be the most scrutinized production west of Broadway … perhaps, on Earth. Now that international gaggle of critics and VIPs has had its say, everyone in Las Vegas can focus on advance ticket sales and the show’s halo effect on the Mirage’s restaurants, room reservations and gift shops.
If it’s positive, as expected, the long-term strategy likely will be “Let It Be.” – Gary Dretzka

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