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November 27, 2014

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Even in closing, ‘Viva Elvis’ produces some amazing stuff

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Tom Donoghue/www.donoghuephotography.com

The Viva Elvis media tour at CityCenter’s Aria on Feb. 19, 2010.

Viva Elvis Blue Carpet

Celebrities walk the blue carpet at Aria for the premiere of Viva Elvis.

Viva Elvis Media Tour

The Viva Elvis media tour at CityCenter's Aria on Feb. 19, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Viva Elvis Blue Carpet @Aria

The blue carpet for the Viva Elvis world premiere at Aria in CityCenter on Feb. 19, 2010. Launch slideshow »

On Tuesday night, I attended “Viva Elvis” with that rare figure: a Las Vegas resident who was entirely uninitiated with Cirque du Soleil.

This person had never seen Cirque before, ever. A Non-Cirquean, if you will.

We watched the show roll out, and it was a pretty rockin’ good time. As we shuffled out, I asked, “How did you like your first Cirque show?”

Her response: “It’s amazing all the stuff they do!”

It is amazing all the stuff they do.

After a time, you can lose that antecedent sense of amazement, even bewilderment, in observing Cirque productions. If you’ve seen everything Cirque has to offer in Las Vegas, you become jaded without even knowing it. You’re watching six guys in suits in a single-file line leaping atop one another’s shoulders in perfect time, three and then four men high, and you think, “I saw this at ‘Mystere’ and ‘Love,’ didn’t I? Maybe stacking that fourth guy is a new thing …”

It takes a Cirque newbie to appreciate the fundamental appeal of the city’s predominant entertainment company. I say this as the rare Cirque show that did not take hold in Vegas, a tribute to one of the city’s greatest entertainers, closes Friday night. Opening is what is described as Cirque’s most technically innovative show, “Zarkana,” and we’re getting a look at that show this week at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The production sets up Nov. 1 at the old Elvis Theater in Aria.

Before Tuesday, I’d not seen “Viva Elvis” in more than two years and only once before, despite reports that repeated changes had improved its pacing and tightened its focus. As I walked into the 7 p.m. performance and looked around the elegantly appointed 1,800-seat theater, bedecked with cushy booth seating near the front and a curtain glowing with gold records, I’d recalled how my feelings about the show ran hot and cold when it opened in February 2010.

The early performance indicated that the mesh of Elvis and Cirque in Las Vegas, which appeared an ideal entertainment triumvirate, would not be so easy to manage.

Those in the Elvis Presley camp (Priscilla Presley and officials from production partner Elvis Presley Enterprises) yearned for more of Elvis’ life story in the production -- “We need more Elvis,” they would say, pressing that Elvis’ warm personality and humor was lost in all the acrobatics and far-flung dance scenes. The crucial moment in the short history of “Viva Elvis” was the dropping of such personal touches as the Col. Tom Parker character (a stogie-chomping sort who appeared intermittently to patch up holes in the show’s bounding narrative) and the removal of wedding footage of Elvis and Priscilla displayed on a long wedding gown.

Elvis devotees, including those who were part of his inner circle, grumbled about removing those scenes. They didn’t like that there was room for all sorts of climbing, bounding and soaring acrobatic scenes, but there was no scene in which a cappella gospel music was sung live onstage. Presley herself had said such a scene would peel back Elvis’ personality -- he loved singing gospel music -- but it never happened.

Why? Cirque was, as always, instinctively acrobatic, embracing some scenes that seemed only thinly connected to Elvis’ life but developed because it fit Cirque’s identity and skill set. I’ve long wondered about a particular scene in which a group of performers are dressed as comic book heroes and bounce around on a half-dozen trampolines to “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do.”

This scene was set up by a short audio recording of Elvis saying he like to read comic books as a kid, “and when I did, I was always the hero.”

I felt myself smirking at the act, which in my head seemed just an example of the struggles “Viva Elvis” faced in telling Elvis’ story. But from the seat next to me, it was, “This is really unbelievable.”

I leaned forward and watched the performance, and there really is something unreal about six guys in optimum physical condition bouncing in perfect rhythm across 10 trampolines. I dug the live music (always do), a band that roared throughout the show, and many of the old film clips -- especially of Elvis’ days at the International and Las Vegas Hilton.

“Viva Las Vegas” was sampled, in video and onstage, to cheering response. Out-of-towners loved the segment, certainly, but I was sad that the “Viva” is leaving Las Vegas. Sure, the ode to Elvis was not the greatest Cirque show, and it won’t be remembered as the greatest entertainment vehicle ever used to recount his onerous life and career.

But, at the end, you have to say that it is amazing all the stuff they do.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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