Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Cirque du Vegas, Part I

As I mentioned in a brief blog earlier, I've been spending a lot of time in Vegas, which is beginning to play a larger and larger role in the business of theatrical entertainment, particularly with the announcement that "Avenue Q" would bypass a road production and sit down in Steve Wynn's new casino. Vegas has historically been tough territory for traditional Broadway shows, although recently "Mamma Mia!" has managed to break through at Mandalay Bay, and, as the "Avenue Q" plan suggests, hotels are looking for more. A 90-minute version of "Phantom of the Opera," for example, is on its way to the Venetian.

But all of these shows need to contend with the dominant theatrical force in Vegas, Cirque du Soleil. I don't really think you can under-estimate the influence Cirque du Soleil has had on Las Vegas. Dishing out a series of sit-down shows for over a decade, Cirque now commands serious attention, and serious money, on the Strip, a place where something like 37 million people descend every year. The Mirage is planning to spend $100 million -- I didn't add any zeroes there! -- on a new Cirque show featuring music of The Beatles.

A brief history: Cirque du Soleil was there when Vegas tried to appeal to families during the late 80s and early 90s, with its first eponymous Vegas show and then "Mystere" at Treasure Island, and the shows' success maybe even spurred the trend. When Vegas discovered that the high arts co-existed with Sin City, Cirque delivered "O" at the Bellagio -- an Esther Williams meets Robert Wilson spectacular that remains the pinnacle of their achievements. When Vegas, in the last few years, went back to marketing itself as a haven of hedonism, Cirque followed suit with "Zumanity" at New York New York, although both artistically and commercially the show hasn't quite played as well as the others.

Why has Cirque been successful when so many other theatre shows have not? There are a number of reasons, but it ultimately boils down to the fact that Cirque and Vegas are a phenomenal fit.

Cirque du Soleil is not a niche show, but has as broad an appeal as any show I can think of. It's abstract and yet mainstream. It's about great acrobatics, and beautiful stage imagery. It requires NO knowledge of English -- until "Zumanity," it used created languages for its songs. (That really can't be under-estimated in a city that draws this number of international visitors.) It's for kids and adults and seniors (again, except "Zumanity," which is overtly sexual).

The shows are easily made to fit the needs of its hosts: a Broadway theatre wants an intermission so it can sell concessions; A Vegas theatre wants no intermission, wants people in and out in no more than 90 minutes so they can go back to the slot machines and game tables. That's why "The Phantom of the Opera" will be cut down. (I should also note, however, that "Mamma Mia!" is a big hit at its regular 2.5 hours length with a break -- still, from the hotel's perspective, an hour less gambling time....)

The question now is, can Cirque keep delivering? Can it keep creating that signature blend of entertainment -- a wondrous mix of abstract high art and sheer mainstream entertainment -- without falling into predictable formula and losing its lustre?

More thoughts on the subject to come as Cirque turns to an offbeat theatre artist, a greater effort at narrative, and gets on the rock-and-roll nostalgia bandwagon.