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July 31, 2014

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Cirque puts its best feet forward in evoking the imagery of Michael Jackson

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Steve Marcus

Costumed paparazzi appear to be looking for celebrities in the audience during a sneak preview of “Michael Jackson One” at Mandalay Bay on Tuesday, May 7, 2013. The new show, by Cirque du Soleil and The Estate of Michael Jackson, is scheduled to hold an official premiere June 29.

Sneak Peek of 'Michael Jackson One'

Dancers and acrobats perform during a sneak preview of the Launch slideshow »

Michael Jackson One

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Welby Altidor, left, director of creation, and Jamie King, writer and director, discuss "Michael Jackson One" by Cirque du Soleil before a sneak peek of the show at Mandalay Bay on Tuesday, May 7, 2013.

This raking is restricted to a single scene, or the “One” scene today at Mandalay Bay, where an invitation-only showcase of the new Cirque du Soleil production “Michael Jackson One” bounded out for the first time.

Four scenes in the renovated Mandalay Bay Theater were performed to give guests a taste of what’s to come at the show’s preview opening May 23. The premiere of what will be the eighth Cirque show on the Strip is June 29.

A few thoughts, notes and quotes from today’s wingding:

• The immediate, initial response from my seat — conveniently occupied by me — was that “One” picks up where “Viva Elvis” left off when it closed last year. This is not a dig. “Viva Elvis” had, finally, figured out how to evoke the image and vibe of a legendary artist without drilling the audience with such inartistic effects as a literal narration of that artist’s life. So there is no voiceover intoning, “At age 8, Michael had perfected a perfect impersonation of James Brown,” even if that is true. Instead, the spirit of Jackson is realized through deft music selection, dazzling set scenery and Cirque’s customary acrobatics and dancing.

“Certainly, we wouldn’t want to make it a straight tribute show,” director Jamie King says. “Michael wouldn’t have that, and this is Cirque du Soleil. They are great at what they do and are all about creating something new. They are mavericks. Certainly, Michael’s iconography, his images and music videos are there. I think they make you feel a certain spirit, and Michael is our guide in that way, in a video-visual way, to evoke the feelings we had when we remember when we first saw the videos for ‘Bad’ or ‘Beat It’ or ‘Thriller.’ So he’s there, but not always there.”

Before the showcase, Welby Altidor, who owns the onerous title as the show’s director of creation, said, “Our inspiration was, if Michael was an acrobat, how would he move? And integrating that with urban dance hip-hop and all styles of dance and movement.” The answer to Altidor’s question is, at least in part, “Way up there while fastened to a bungee cord.”

• The show is similar to “Love” in that the scenes recall images recognizable to the artist’s most devoted fans. A clear example: A skeleton topped with an elephant head, reminding of Jackson’s reported fascination with the remains of “Elephant Man” Jim Merrick. If you remember that Jackson was once interested in buying that skeleton, it’s a pretty funny reference. If not, it’s just another skeleton with an elephant head.

• Sample scenes: A trio of dancers with digital lettering stretched across their chest drop from the ceiling … a giant jewel box … a collection of dancers from various cultures, including an Asian girl and a blonde kid in a light-blue jumpsuit … a contraption above center stage exposing metal beams and a trio of LED screens … an elegantly attired woman sitting inside a sliver of a silver moon … five masked guys in gangster suits performing the famous “Smooth Criminal” forward lean … a pair of glowing, disembodied boots performing a moonwalk … an aerialist who looks like a post-rage Incredible Hulk hanging and twirling above the stage … and a spring-loaded cushion over the middle of the set’s surface, giving the dancers a bit more bounce.

• Also reminiscent of “Love,” the theater has been outfitted with a revamped sound system. Three speakers are placed around each seated audience member — two on the sides of each seat and one on the seat back on the chair in front. All of that supplements the theater’s upgraded audio system. Give credit to sound designer Jonathan Deans for the speaker positioning and musical director Kevin Antunes for how those speakers are used.

“It’s kind of like a combination of an arena sound system and an IMAX theater, with the clarity of being in a recording studio,” Antunes said. “So, when you take that combination of technology, with how the (Jackson) estate and Cirque du Soleil has directed me to take Michael’s original recordings, it feels as if you’re in a very large recording studio. In here, you are able to hear Michael’s music in a way that you can’t hear it anywhere else.”

True. The first feeling that hit me today was, “This sounds great,” and — so far — it’s safe to report that this show is an inventive way to reintroduce Cirque to Las Vegas ... and Jackson to a worldwide audience.

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

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