Viva Elvis Opening

Viva Elvis Opening

“Viva Elvis” is the new Cirque du Soleil show at the new Aria Hotel in the new CityCenter. In spite of that newness, “Viva Elvis” is really a throwback to the Pre-Cirque shows in Vegas. The emphasis in “Viva Elvis” is on large scale song and dance numbers, with Cirque du Soleil acrobatics playing a relatively smaller supporting role. “Viva Elvis” reenacts the life of Elvis through song and dance, with some gymnastics here and there.

The show is a partnership with Elvis Presley Enterprises, hence the shows producers had full access to the Elvis recording and video library, which are utilized to full effect. A large screen, center stage is used to play the video clips. The only male voice that is heard in songs is that of Elvis himself, four female singers add live vocals to various numbers plus there is a live on stage band.

Erich van Tourneau the Musical Director and Arranger of the show was charged with making use of the Elvis recordings. He summarized his approach as follows:

I am a big fan of sampling. I use the mixing of styles, periods and cultures to create music that is organic and personal…The leitmotif that guided me throughout the entire creative process was to ask myself, ‘what would the songs of Elvis be like if he were doing them for the first time today?’ “I set out to evoke the soul and the spirit of Elvis Presley, while building a bridge between his music and future generations of fans.

Hardcore Elvis fans may have preferred that the production used old Elvis recordings, but this is Cirque du Soleil after all, and that would have been too simple and ordinary. If you want to hear Elvis songs, sung in their original style “Big Elvis “ at Bill’s Gambling Hall does three laudatory  performances Monday-Friday, for free. That’s not to say that you should pass on “Viva Elvis”. The show is fun, in a loud messy way.

Blue Suede Shoes

Viva Elvis: "Blue Suede Shoes"

The opening number , BLUE SUEDE SHOES  includes 30 dancers, 24 acrobats, a  eight-piece band, four female singers  and  a 29 foot 7,000 pound Blue Suede Shoe. The number is fun and energetic, but doesn’t have the typical Cirque du Soleil feel, more like a dance routine turned up a few notches.

Two numbers standout for being complete non sequiturs, GOT A LOT OF LIVIN’ TO DO and WESTERN SCENE.

The GOT A LOT OF LIVIN’ TO DO number is a trampoline scene, with gymnasts dressed as Superheroes  bouncing off of a series of  trampolines to amazing effect.  The combination of how the trampolines are set and the skill of the performers creates some thrilling  gravity defying feats. Even

Viva Elvis: "Superhero"

Viva Elvis: "Superhero"

though the gymnastics are relatively simple, the effect is mesmerizing. However, you might be asking yourself, “What do comic book superheros have to do with Elvis Presley? ” Evidently Elvis like comic books, so that’s the connection, really. Its a fun number to watch, so does it really matter that the connection to Elvis is paper thin.

The Western Scene is just that, complete with cowboys doing rope tricks. The rope tricks, complete with flaming lassos was thrilling to watch, particularly from  front orchestra seats. I tied to gather some information on these talented rope handlers, but neither the show program nor the press kit provided any information.

The most creative and interesting scene is JAILHOUSE ROCK, which combines an elaborate set with upside down gymnastics, literally. Actually, it is a circus art called “marche inversée.” The lighting was the most interesting of all the scenes, with harsh white light reinforcing the Jailhouse theme. The total effect is surprising, which makes the scene seem like the most Cirque-ish number in the show.

Viva Elvis: "Jailhouse Rock"

Viva Elvis: "Jailhouse Rock"

I half expected there to be a Bob Fosse type number, highlighting the Elvis hip-gyrations that ran afoul on Ed Sullivan, but alas it was not meant to be.

During the closing number Red Elvis Scarves are dropped from the ceiling, which look like they would make a great souvenir, but I wouldn’t know for sure, some of  these Soccer Moms have some very sharp elbows.

Hi, I’m Ziggy

Andrea "Ziggy" Ziegler Dance Master Viva Elvis

Andrea "Ziggy" Ziegler Dance Master Viva Elvis

Ziggy, isn’t that just the perfect nickname for someone that works at Cirque du Soleil. Ziggy is Andrea Ziegler, the Dance Master at “Viva Elvis”. I met with Andrea and Cirque du Soleil Publicist Ann Paladie the day after I saw “Viva Elvis”. Andrea was a performer in Mystere before becoming Dance Master.

You might be wondering what exactly a Dance Master does, and Andrea rattled-off a long list of responsibilities when I inquired, one of which was “Keep all the dancers happy”, talk about unrealistic job requirements!

I was curious to hear  Andrea and Ann’s reaction to the Internet Buzz about “Viva Elvis”, which has been less positive than most Cirque shows. Neither showed much interest in that inquiry. The main focus of Internet Buzz criticism of “Viva Elvis” is that it is not a typical Cirque du Soleil show, with song and dance routines taking a larger role than acrobatics. I suspect the Internet Buzz would be much more favorable if you removed Cirque du Soleil from the title, in that with the Cirque name attached to the show, the audience has come to expect extravagant acrobatics and gymnastics.

Andrea did mention that all Cirque shows undergo continual assessment by the creative team, with tweaks being made to even veteran shows like Mystere. The show has already had one major overhaul since opening. One aspect of the show that could clearly use a re-work is the Colonel Parker character which appears between scenes, much to the annoyance of many in the audience.

In discussing some of the numbers with Andrea, it became clear where you sit in the audience has a major impact on your perception of the show. I had great seats, front and center, however, I clearly missed some of the details Andrea mentioned.  I think because I was sitting too close to the stage to take in everything. The details involved the synchronization of the dancers with the video screen. If you are sitting close to the stage you tend to focus solely on the dancers, or at least I did. Andrea said she preferred to watch “Viva Elvis” further back in the the audience, and I think I agree with her. Its great sitting close enough so that you can see the expressions on the performers faces, but your span of vision is too narrow to take in all the action.

Put “Viva Elvis” on Your List of Vegas Shows

“Viva Elvis” deserves a spot on your list of Vegas shows to see. Keep in mind the show is more dance focused than acrobatic focused and remember to be quick to your feet if your want a Red Elvis Scarf.

Viva Elvis Finale

Viva Elvis Finale

I would like thank Jamie Helmick from Cirque du Soleil for providing tickets to “Viva Elvis”, and Andrea Ziegler and Ann Paladie for meeting with me to discuss the show. All photos courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

An Essay on Franco Dragone and Cirque du Soleil

A Review of  ”The Lion King” at Mandalay Bay

Songs in Viva Elvis

  1. Thus Spake Zarathustra
  2. Blue Suede Shoes
  3. Don’t Be Cruel
  4. One Night With You
  5. All Shook Up
  6. Saved
  7. Got A Lot Of Livin’ To Do
  8. Heartbreak Hotel
  9. Love Me Tender
  10. Return To Sender
  11. Are You Lonesome Tonight
  12. Western Montage: (Mystery Train / Blue Moon Of Kentucky / I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine /Trying To Get To You / Baby What You Want Me To Do / Tiger Man)
  13. Burning Love
  14. Bossa Nova
  15. King Creole
  16. Jailhouse Rock
  17. It’s Now Or Never
  18. Can’t Help Falling In Love
  19. Love Me / Don’t
  20. Viva Las Vegas
  21. Suspicious Minds
  22. Hound Dog

The version of The Lion King at Mandalay Bay is the full unabridged version of the show and runs almost exactly two and one half hours, complete with an intermission, a rarity for Vegas entertainment.

The Costumes Alone Are Worth The Price Of Admission

The show starts off playing to its strengths, as all the animals in the show parade down the aisles and up to the stage. The costumes that the actors wear in the show are both dazzling in appearance and stunning in their creativity. Calling them “costumes” hardly does  justice to the ensembles.

Lion King Photo "The Circle of Life"

Marija Juliette Abney, Jeremiah Tatum, and Derrick Spear in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING Las Vegas. ©2009, Disney. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

The picture above gives you a taste of how the costumes transform the actors into various  African Savannah animals. The transforming effect is particularly striking in the Giraffes, at first glance the outline of the actors blends completely into the silhouette of the Giraffes. Add to the effect persuasive locomotion, and you begin to comprehend the complexity of the individual performances in “The Lion King.”

Lia Chang has an article complete with pictures and video of the transformation of an actor into “Scar” the Claudius character in “The Lion King”.  The complete “Scar” costume weighs in at over 50 pounds, including a remotely controlled mask. Even more detail on the “Scar” costume can be found on the blog “La Bricoleuse”

Hats Off To Julie Taymor

Julie Taymor the director of Costume Design as well as Mask and Puppet Design describes her high-level objectives on the Lion King costumes.

I wanted audiences to take a leap of faith and imagination right from the start. Stage mechanics would be visible, the audience, given the hint or suggestion of an idea, would be ready to fill in the lines, to take it the rest of the way.

The fact that there is some transparency in the costume design strengthens the audience involvement, in that it requires extra intellectual engagement, rather than a completely passive experience, that is so common in mass market entertainment. After watching “The Lion King” you might wonder how long it took to design all the costumes and masks, the answer is: Over 34,000 hours.

As in any Musical, choreography plays a vital supporting role. Garth Fagan the Choreographer of  ”The Lion King” describes his high level objectives:

I wanted the dance to look like an integral part of this community, which of course includes strong elements from Africa – the kind of movement used by cultures that are close to the Earth and to Nature…most importantly, the dance numbers should seem to come out of nowhere and surprise the audience, and then dissipate like ephemeral dreams

While choreography is an obvious element of Musicals, Lighting Design while often overlooked, can play an equally important role as it does in “The Lion King”.  Donald Holder the Lighting Designer describes the lighting on a particularly challenging scene:

The lighting for Mufasa’s ghost was difficult to conceptualize, yet relatively easy to achieve technically. We eliminated all ambient light onstage, projected overlapping images of crispy focused dots of light and sculpted the mask with sidelights. The effect we wanted was that of entering the silence and vastness of the cosmos – or of the internal world of Simba’s subconscious.

The Lion King, Hamlet Redux

The Lion King story should be familiar to anyone that has been a child, a parent, or a grandparent in the last fifteen years, as the show is based on the hugely successful 1994 Disney movie of the same name. The Musical opened three years later on Broadway, and has since expanded to seemingly every corner of the globe.

The plot line of  ”The Lion King” is vaguely similar to Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Disney modifications, hence there is much less bloodshed and you have the lighthearted “Hakunna Matata” song substituting for Hamlet’s Soliloquy.

Like most Musicals, the plot line is of secondary importance, unlike most Musicals the music also takes a secondary role to the costumes and staging. The music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice with African Choral music supplied by Lebo M, is serviceable with few numbers you’ll be humming after the show. Particularly effective are the two percussionists positioned in the audience balcony both stage left and right, with congas, shakers and koto drums, creating a wonderful stereo effect.

The Lion King is performed in two acts, the first act has a young Simba, the future King and a young Nala, Simba’s friend and future wife. In the first act I found myself saying:

Gee aren’t those little pishers cute, they’ve remembered their lines, have hit their marks, they even sing and dance!

Needless to say, that suggests I wasn’t fully engaged in the first act of the show. The Internet Buzz  supports my impression that the second act of the show is the stronger of the two acts. The first act ends strong with one of the best scenes in the show, with the singing of “Hakuan Matata” and introducing the most Disneyesque characters in the show Timon (A Meekat) and Pumbaa (A Warthog). The Wildebeest Stampede is another show-stopper, Taymor pulled out all her tricks to create an amazingly real stampede effect, right before you eyes.

The internet Buzz for “The Lion King” is as favorable as I have seen for any Vegas show. For a curated sampling of the Buzz  check-out

Vegas Trumps Broadway

My neighbors in the audience have all seen other productions of “The Lion King” and unanimously agreed that the production at Mandalay Bay was the cream of the lot. If you want to see a great show in Vegas put “The Lion King” on your list. If you want to see “The Lion King” but are not sure which production to see, the one at Mandalay Bay should be at the top of your list.

The Lion King is Leaving Vegas, To Spend More Time With The Family

If you want to see “The Lion king” at Mandalay Bay, act with haste, as the production will be ending its run on December 30 1011. There are conflicting rumors as to why such a popular show is stopping after a mere two and one half year run. Rita Rudner believes it is because “The Lion wants to spend more time with his family” Others believe it is to make room for the up-coming Michael Jackson themed Cirque du Soleil show.

As a side note, Las Vegas showrooms are ill-equipped to handle shows with intermissions, in that you can expect to find very long lines in the restrooms, for both men and women, so plan accordingly, a casino restroom is probably your best bet.

Related essays on Vegas Mavens: Franco Drgaone and Cirque du Soleil

In the interest of full disclosure and pursuant to Federal Trade Commission guidelines: I hereby disclose that I received a free ticket, a VIP ticket no less, to The Lion King from the lovely and talented people at The Lion King

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