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April 24, 2014

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Cirque hopes a touch of the bizarre in ‘Zarkana’ breathes life into Elvis Theater

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Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana” at Aria on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012.

An Up-Close Look at 'Zarkana' at Aria

An up-close look at Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

'Zarkana' Arrives at Aria

The singer and actress Cassiopee gives an interview as the Cirque du Soleil show Launch slideshow »

'Zarkana': Red Carpet and Show at Aria

Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

'Zarkana' at Aria

Launch slideshow »

The lead character in “Zarkana” is a tortured magician named Zark. The honorable, if luckless, illusionist is trapped in an abandoned theater, having lost the love of his life and his gift of magic. Begging to the beyond for the return of both, Zark is plunged into a bizarre, arcane universe replete with surreal sights and echoing sounds. The name “Zarkana” comes from a blend of those two words: bizarre and arcane.

In a broader sense, there’s a different sort of return-to-magic effort being made here. Having lost its way with an attempt to merge acrobatic dexterity with Elvis Presley, Cirque is hauling “Zarkana” into a familiar theater, summoning the tried-and-true for another go at Aria.

“Zarkana” has been showcased in three dissimilar cities and succeeded in each. It has drawn 4,000-5,000 fans per show at the venerable Radio City Music Hall in New York, the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow and Madrid Arena in Spain. Nearly 1 million theatergoers have purchased tickets to see it before it has played for a single night in Las Vegas. So, was “Zarkana” moved to Aria because the show has the highest likelihood of success of any Cirque production playing anywhere in the world? In a word, “Yep,” said Daniel Lamarre, Cirque’s president and CEO. It’s the closest thing Cirque has to a sure bet, and that’s a rarity in Las Vegas.

At a moment when maximizing success is paramount, “Zarkana” is Cirque at its Cirquest: a dependably and deliberately amped-up, greatest-hits package uniformly representative of the artistry that sells about 9,000 tickets a night in Las Vegas. The show opened Nov. 1 in the old Viva Elvis Theater, a grand and beautiful venue that, nonetheless, stands as the site of the only Cirque show to ever close on the Strip.

It was a staggering outcome, given that Cirque was undefeated after six of its shows opened on the Strip, beginning with “Mystère” at Treasure Island in 1993.

Lamarre talks of “Zarkana” being a “sure thing” in Las Vegas, but “Viva Elvis” also seemed like a lock before its February 2010 opening. The show was linked to the enormous popularity of Elvis Presley, and the production was formally endorsed by Elvis Presley Enterprises in a creative partnership with Cirque. Priscilla Presley contributed ideas during rehearsals and in the months after the show opened.

But critics — and many audience members — complained that “Viva Elvis” lacked focus, unsure if it wanted to be a more traditional Cirque experience steeped in dazzling acrobatics and inventive acts or a series of dance numbers set to Elvis songs, designed to tell the Presley story through music and vintage film clips.

This philosophical tug-of-war was a constant during the “Viva Elvis” run, and a year after it opened, Cirque officials announced the show would go dark for a significant retooling that would have commenced in January. But before the overhaul could begin, in November 2011, MGM Resorts asked Cirque to close “Viva Elvis” by the end of 2012. The show’s final performance was Aug. 31.

Lamarre and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte were aware that “Viva Elvis” didn’t possess the momentum it needed to survive in Las Vegas. Reports of half-filled audiences wound around town, and the two Cirque overlords began exploring options. There were two courses to take: Move an existing show into Aria or build a new production from the ground up. The latter option offered the sort of risk Cirque was uninterested in revisiting. It would take at least two years to build a new production in Las Vegas, and that show would have no track record.

Speculation for what would replace “Viva Elvis” centered on two shows: “Zed,” which closed at Tokyo Disney Resort last December, a victim of the economic malaise caused by the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan’s coastline in March 2011, and “Zarkana.”

In fall 2011, Laliberte and Lamarre attended a performance of “Zarkana” at Radio City Music Hall. They had been questioning the viability of “Viva Elvis,” noting that CityCenter’s clientele felt closer to the types of audiences buying tickets to “Zarkana” in New York.

“The more we were looking to the crowds attending ‘Zarkana,’ the more we were seeing a demographic,” Lamarre said. “It was a young demographic that was quite similar to the one we were seeing at Aria.”

Soon, Cirque officials invited CityCenter executive Bobby Baldwin to attend the show in New York. Baldwin liked it, and “Zarkana” became the favorite among executives representing Cirque and MGM Resorts International.

Lamarre remembers seeing “Zarkana” with Laliberte and having the same realization.

“We were kind of looking at each other and saying, ‘This will be the perfect show for CityCenter,’” Lamarre said.

In terms of pure acrobatic artistry, “Zarkana” is more advanced than any of Cirque’s other productions in Las Vegas. The original version cost $55 million — a price tag that covers only the show itself, not the construction of a theater. That makes “Zarkana” the biggest Cirque show. Ever.

The scenery and activity splayed across the stage are so visually dynamic you often don’t know where to focus. Giant spiderwebs flank the set. Three hand-sculpted arches tower over the performers — one populated by dozens of slithering and pulsating snakes, another formed from a plant creature with arms extending more than 30 feet, and the third depicting a woman and the scientist whose experiments unintentionally pickled her. Inside the set, performers mimic the action onstage, giving it the appearance of human wallpaper.

The Details

  • “Zarkana”: 7 and 9:30 p.m., $69-$180, Aria

The acts are typical of Cirque, defying common imagination and even the laws of physics and gravity. A trio of acrobats balances on high-rising ladders. Russian bar performers do somersaults and twists in midair. Wire artists skip across a tightrope, fire spewing from their mouths, and a tap-dancing juggler tosses tennis balls against set pieces and the stage. Fifteen people create human pyramids and perform aerial crossovers. An artist works atop a light table to tell a story through designs in blue sand. And of course, a Cirque show isn’t complete without a pair of clowns. In “Zarkana,” one of these costumed comics is fired from a cannon, soaring over the audience.

The show has been cut from its original version, tightened here and there and rid of its 15-minute intermission. As it has evolved, English has been supplanted by a form of “Cirquespeak,” a language that sounds something like Italian mixed with Russian, Spanish, French and, perhaps, Pig Latin. Led by the red-caped Zark (portrayed by Paul Bisson, who bears a somewhat unnerving resemblance to Laliberte and was the original Quasimodo in “Notre Dame de Paris” at Paris Las Vegas in 1999), the songs are all performed in this unspecific language.

But what separates “Zarkana” from the six other Cirque productions in Las Vegas is its musical score. The show rocks, its music written by Elton John prodigy Nick Littlemore, and the music has a bite and edge absent in other Strip Cirque shows featuring live music (discounting the distinctive Beatles soundscape in “Love,” which stands alone). Littlemore is famous for his work in the Australian rock band Empire of the Sun, and he also remixed John’s songs for “Good Morning to the Night.”

“This is the most rock show of Cirque,” “Zarkana” writer and director François Girard said. “It is meant to be loud. ... It is music, wall to wall.”

The music matches the ominous tenor of the story. The show is the darkest of the Cirque productions, with the lead character often singing in apparent anguish.

“The way Guy and I feel about it, we see it as a rock opera,” Lamarre said. “The music is very, very important. I have to admit to you that the discovery we have had in bringing ‘Zarkana’ into that theater is that the songs and the music are going to have greater importance in that show than any other show we have in Las Vegas.”

Lamarre said it’s a mistake to refer to “Zarkana” as a more elaborate sampler platter of what we’ve seen from Cirque.

“Whenever we are bringing new content into Las Vegas, we have to convince ourselves that this content is distinctive from anything else we have on the Strip,” he said. “Having said that, no one can deny that, with the more shows we bring there, there might be a cannibalization possible. So we have a huge synergy in promotion and are promoting more and more all of our shows together.”

The overarching sense is that Cirque has done all it can to maximize success at Aria — and avoid another “Viva Elvis” experience.

“The luxury we have right now is we know this show is good. Every time you open a new show, there is a lot of anxiety. Will it be great? Will people enjoy this show?” Lamarre said. “We know this show is working. It has already been successful. It is the first time we have experienced that in Las Vegas.”

What if the unspeakable were to happen? What if the show does not capture audiences at Aria as it has in New York, Madrid and Moscow?

“If, for whatever reason, it wouldn’t work, nobody should blame the content of the show,” Lamarre said. “We know the content of the show is working.”

The reasoning is obvious: If the show doesn’t work here, it will be for other reasons. Maybe those reasons will be bizarre and arcane, but they won’t be “Zarkana.”

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

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