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

Franco Dragone is the creative director of the first two Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas, Mystere and “O”, and thus the man largely responsible for the dramatic change in the entertainment landscape that has occurred over the last twenty years. Of course, as with any significant change in Las Vegas over the last twenty years, Steve Wynn played a pivotal role in this transformation, as he was the man that brought Franco Dragone to Las Vegas to produce both shows.

Franco Dragone is Cirque du Soleil’s Original Vegas Creative Director

Franco Dragone is a most unlikely person to have ended up as a major player in Vegas entertainment. Dragone was born  in Cairano, Italy in 1952 and moved to Belgium at age seven. He studied acting at the Belgian Royal Conservatory and was drawn to commedia dell’arte, his early work had a strong political bent. In the early 1980s Dragone was working in Canada, and his work attracted the attention of Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, in Montreal. Dragone was soon directing Cirque shows that were attracting attention far beyond Montreal. Part of Dragone’s innovation was combining featured acts like acrobats with themed peripheral performers. As Chris Jones states in his article Frank Dragone At The Limits Of Las Vegas

(Dragone) has a knack for making an audience feel that something important is taking place before their eyes

Steve Wynn Invites Franco Dragone to Las Vegas

Perhaps having this knack was part of the reason Steve Wynn invited Dragone to Las Vegas to create Mystere, which opened at Treasure Island in 1993, and is still playing to a full house twice daily five days a week. Wynn’s initial reaction to Dragone’s creation was less than enthusiastic, he  called it “boring like a German Opera”. Mystere is the purest expression of a Cirque du Soleil show, the staging is minimalist compared to future Vegas productions, and there is no plot line or dialogue to distract from the spectacle.

Mystere is a Big Success in Las Vegas

The success of Mystere led to a second, and far more expensive collaboration between Wynn and Dragone, when Wynn built a custom $80 million theatre to house Dragone’s next Cirque du Soleil show, “O”. The water-themed show utilizes an elaborate stage that can be transformed from a pool deep enough for high divers to a faux sand beach, and everything in between. “O”, like Mystere, is a show with no plot line or dialogue, but as Chris Jones says in his essay:

Dragone had figured out a way to burrow into the psyche of a broad spectrum of the general public. Audiences may not feel like they understand the whole thing, but they tend to understand with unusual ease that this is also a piece designed to work on their collective subconscious.

Whether referring to Carl Jung’s collective unconscious or some other unprovable theory, there is something about Cirque du Soleil shows that begs this type of discourse, and of course leads directly to The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate. The Great Debate is a spoof  of academic symposium where obtuse theories and sesquipedalian  speakers are the norm.  (The debate is held once a year at the University of Chicago, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.) As enjoyable as Cirque shows are, they have a slightly pretentious after-taste.

The Great Debate featuring Ted Cohen, Philosophy Professor and member of the Committee on Art and Design at U of Chicago is particularly germane. (The audio of the Debate is available here)

it is—is predicated upon this prior conception. Most modern art is like this: you must know in advance what the artist thought he was doing if you are to make sense of his art.

I’m sure there are countless “Mystere” and “O” audience members that have thought as they walked out of the show, the only way I can make sense of this show is if Franco Dragone sat down next to me and explained to me what he thought he was doing! Even if you ignore the inherent problems of a show devoid of plot, the individual  acts lack any real  Ah ha moments. Many of the acts, if not most, offer spectacular feats of acrobatic and gymnastic skill and are thrilling to watch, like a great fireworks display. However, like a great fireworks display, where one spectacular rocket burst just leads to another, no enduring connection is made with the audience.

Mummenschanz versus Cirque du Soleil

Mummenschanz, is another show that relies on non-verbal communication to thrill the audience, and is filled with Ah ha moments. The audience is forced to stay intellectually engaged  to get the full impact of the show, Cirque du Soleil allows for a much more passive audience experience.

After Mystere and “O” Franco Dragone and Cirque du Soleil amicably parted ways. Dragone stayed in Vegas and sprinkled his magic dust on Celine Dion’s elaborately staged show at Caesars Palace. Working with Celine Dion’s catalog of mostly non-narrative songs presented a real challenge to Dragone.

Obviously,  I could not interpret the songs literally. If I did, the show would have been ” I love you, I love you, I love you. I had to find the metaphors behind them.

There can be little doubt that some of the huge success of Celine Dion’s show was attributable to Dragone’s creative choreography. As a matter of fact Franco Dragone and Cirque du Soleil have become the dominant entertainment form in Las Vegas, even Vegas magicians feel the need to add a little, or a lot, of the magic dust to their shows. Magician Criss Angel, of Mindfreak fame,  added substantial Cirque du Soleil elements to his show at Luxor. Twenty years ago a Beatles tribute show would have been four guys and perhaps an large screen projector, is now Cirque du Soleil’s LOVE at the Mirage. A forthcoming Elvis production is en route at CityCenter. Neither of these shows have Franco Dragone’s direct involvement, although I’m sure his influence is still felt.

Franco Dragone and Steve Wynn Join Forces Again with Le Reve

Franco Dragone’s final project, at least for now, is Le Reve: A Small Collection of Imperfect Dreams at Wynn. Le Reve is another water show, like “O”, with the added complication that it is performed theater in the round, where no audience member is more than forty feet from the stage. Unlike “O” the show has a darker tone. As Chris Jones states in his essay:

Long-time admirers of the director can’t help but wonder if Dragone has finally met his limits in Vegas. His new creative darkness, perhaps, is testing the artistic boundaries of a casino show aimed at satisfying a mass market of vacationers.

The most interesting quote in Chris Jones essay is by Franco Dragone himself, “I can’t do gibberish any more, now, everyone does gibberish” What is one to make of that?

Franco Dragone Has Forever Changed the Las Vegas Entertainment Landscape

There is no doubt that Franco Dragone and Cirque du Soleil have forever changed the entertainment landscape in Las Vegas, not only by the shows they have running on the Strip, but also by other shows that might have never been given a chance if not for Cirques huge success. I doubt Blue Man Group would be in Vegas without Cirque or perhaps Penn & Teller, two shows with a non-traditional Vegas appeal. I’m still waiting for Mummenschanz to join the Vegas entertainment lineup.

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