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August 30, 2014

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Beyond ‘Absinthe,’ Spiegelworld’s Ross Mollison has great intent

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The Gazillionaire and Spiegelworld founder Ross Mollison relish the 1,000th performance of “Absinthe” during a post-show party at Pure in Caesars Palace on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

Kats With the Dish

Behind the scenes of 'Absinthe'

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John Katsilometes and Tricia McCrone talk to Ross Mollison, the founder of Spiegelworld, which produces "Absinthe."

‘Absinthe’ Celebrates 1,000 Shows

Launch slideshow »

'Absinthe': March 28, 2012

Melody Sweets performs during the Wednesday, March 28, 2012, performance of Launch slideshow »

Ross Mollison shares many traits with the artists he recruits for his brilliant Spiegelworld productions. He’s crafty, lithe, a jab-and-feint conversationalist who seems wide open and secretive all at once.

It’s part of the Mollison mystique. Now you see him, now you don’t, and before you know it he has one of the Strip’s most inspired productions in “Absinthe” at Caesars Palace and another on the way at Cosmopolitan. That’s “Vegas Nocturne,” the resident show at the Cosmo’s new Rose.Rabbit.Lie cabaret club — or is it a theater? Showroom? Warehouse? Even Mollison is reluctant to definitively describe the show or its venue.

But what is certain is “Vegas Nocturne” will be a unique entertainment experience, with such an “Absinthe”-like attitude and creative vision that the shows share the same director, Wayne Harrison, and cast members from the Caesars show have been helping to train “Vegas Nocturne” performers in the art of crass comedy.

You can guess which “Absinthe” cast members have taken on that tutorial role.

During one of his recent, and frequent, visits to Las Vegas, Mollison talked of the new “Absinthe” contract at Caesars, the new show at Cosmopolitan and the occasional misadventures of his cast members. What we gleaned from the Spiegelworld overlord:

The new “Absinthe” contract with Caesars Palace is a significant event:

We’d accepted for more than a year, or since the last contract announcement between Base Entertainment and Spiegelworld (co-producers of “Absinthe”) and Caesars Palace, that “Absinthe” was an open-ended show with no end date set. Either side could opt out of the contract, but there were no time limitations stated. But in November, Mollison announced that “Absinthe” had signed a multiyear agreement to remain at Roman Plaza at Caesars at least through the end of 2016. He explained that the new deal was to give the show, in its $2 million tented theater, a home at Roman Plaza for at least another three years.

“If Absinthe continues to perform the way it does, we will continue to be at the Roman Plaza,” Mollison said. “What we are really saying is, Caesars isn’t going to build on the Roman Plaza at least until 2016; they’ve agreed to it and committed to that with us. That gives us security and tenure. Also, we’ve been investing quite a significant sum in the operating of the venue and slowly, over time, it’s becoming more comfortable.”

That tent is not really a tent:

The second Spiegelworld tent was built quickly to replace what was, in fact, a genuinely temporary tented venue to cover the show’s original six-month contract. A new venue was required when the show entered into a long-term contract in the fall of 2011.

“That venue was built in 2½ weeks, and that is a building, it’s a real building,” Mollison said. “We budgeted it at $700,000, I think, and it cost $2 million to build. But when you look it as being 650 seats, it’s probably the cheapest 650-seat venue built since about 1950. But you do have to recoup your investment, and that is what ‘Absinthe’ is doing.”

People forget that “Absinthe” was originally planned as the resident show at Fontainebleau:

It was indeed to be the signature production for the stalled project on the Strip.

“This was a $70 million theater being constructed and $15 million to build our show at Fontainebleau. That was a permanent thing, and it was the only entertainment in there, in what was a 4,000-room hotel-casino,” Mollison said. “We were ready to go in the last quarter of 2009, then when everybody went belly-up, nobody was looking to invest millions of bucks to launch this bunch of crazy carnies who had success in New York, Miami and Australia. But Base supported us, and our original capital was about $1.25 million.

“We were up and running, and this was very much an organic success at Caesars.”

The update of the high-wire act in “Absinthe” is not such a big deal:

The act shifted personnel when Tony “Tightropes” Hernandez left after his arrest on domestic battery charges. His departure effectively ended the three-man Esteemed Gentlemen of the High Wire act, as the show is rolling out a new version of the number — “The Frat Pack” — by the end of the year (in a delightful twist that is entirely characteristic of its circus-steeped tradition, Hernandez’s wife and high-wire artist, Lijana Wallenda-Hernandez, has been performing in the act until the new cast member is fully trained).

Hernandez has posted some inflammatory tweets since he left the show, at one point writing, in apparent reference to the show’s high-wire performers, “When they fall (and they WILL fall) I just hope they don’t hurt an audience member TOO bad. Not my problem anymore. It’s #Caesars problem. ;)”

Mollison practically yawns at such behavior.

“I’ve been working now, in the business, for 25 years. I’ve had light planes out looking for artists who have gone missing on beaches three days before openings of major musicals,” he said. "I think social media gives some artists a great outlet, and I hope they find pleasure in that. I know Tony is having a difficult time with family, and I just want to see him rehabilitated, or recover from this, as quickly as possible, for him and his family.”

Mollison continued: “I wish him every success. I gave him a good reference for his new job (Hernandez is now working on a production in New York), and I wish him nothing but the best. He’s a hell of an artist. He’s a great acrobat. He really is.”

“Vegas Nocturne,” to be played in three cantos (or acts) each night in a cabaret-club setting, is not easy to describe:

“The great thing about the professional entertainment media in Vegas is they really understand marketing and PR from the Vegas perspective. Every word that I use to describe the show creates an expectation,” he said. “Like the word ‘immersive,’ which is something Jonathan (Segal, head of the One Group) used a lot with Bagatelle. So, if you say immersive, do you think Bagatelle? If you use the word ‘clown,’ is it the clown outside Circus Circus or is it the sort of Eastern European clowning? ... Is it Voki (Kalfayan, who plays Gazillionaire in 'Absinthe')? You can’t use any of these words without creating an expectation — so what I prefer to say is, what I set out to do, having worked now in Las Vegas for at least six years now, is to create something for Vegas that I think is right for Vegas. It’s not being done by us anywhere else.”

Nonetheless, “Vegas Nocturne” will have a specific feel:

“John (Unwin, CEO of Cosmopolitan) had this idea of re-creating the great clubs of the ’40s and ’50s, or even further back than that,” Mollison said. “I don’t even think he described it that way. That’s how I describe it. But I think he’s seeking something like a Stork Club, or the 21 Club, which goes back to the ’20s in the Prohibition era. Those sorts of clubs, where you can have dinner and be entertained.

“What it means is, we’re taking little elements we have seen or have done and are saying, ‘That will work in Vegas.’ ”

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

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