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September 2, 2014

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REVIEW:

A year in, Criss Angel’s ‘Believe’ hasn’t changed much for the better

If You Go

  • What: Criss Angel “Believe”
  • When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (dark Sunday and Monday)
  • Where: Luxor (showroom at casino level)
  • Admission: $59-$160 (discounts available); 262-4400, luxor.com
  • Running time: About 90 minutes
  • Audience advisory: Simulated violence, crude language, smoke and pyrotechnic effects, live birds, dead rabbits and loud music. Fully-stocked gift shop.

It’s time for your annual checkup, Criss Angel.

Unbelievably, Angel’s “Believe” will hit the one-year mark on Saturday. After a blizzard of hype — $100 million investment! Ten-year contract! Criss + Holly 4Ever! — the show opened at the Luxor on Halloween night 2008 to a near-unanimous chorus of boos from reviewers, including yours truly.

I was curious about how Angel and Cirque du Soleil might have changed or improved their collaboration in the intervening year, so I bought tickets (including a second seat for just $25) for Wednesday’s 7 p.m. performance.

Mr. Angel, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.

“Believe” now seems a bizarre, stranded artifact of a moment when some people had too much money. The show has been streamlined a bit — no live musicians, fewer aerialists and dancers, less video wizardry — but it hasn’t been improved, only diminished. Not much has changed with the overall experience of “Believe”: I got it pretty much right the first time around.

The gift shop, disappointingly skimpy when the show opened, has been substantially stocked with every imaginable Angel-branded accouterment.

But the leading man, the show’s raison d’être, has gotten worse, if that can be imagined.

If not exactly humbled by the show’s critical drubbing and lackluster sales, Angel, now the butt of jokes by most other Strip comics and magicians, seems less hubristic than he did a year ago. There’s less swagger and no chest-baring (Angel appears to have put on a few pounds). He looks like what he is — a cape-wearing Long Island schlub with a tragic Jennifer Aniston haircut.

Angel is quite literally going through the motions now. The least compelling figure on the Luxor stage, he’s a puzzlingly blank, passive star and centerpiece, pushed and pulled through a series of disappearance stunts by his quartet of clowns and his dueling dark-and-light stage assistants.

Mercifully, Angel’s speaking lines, which even a year ago were mostly non sequiturs, have been reduced.

Whatever edge or ingenuity exists comes from the Cirque side of the equation. A gallery of lenticular paintings lines the entry to the showroom, equipped with motion sensors so Angel’s disembodied voice says things like “Are you ready?” when you pass by. It’s fun to move back and forth in front of the pictures and make Angel say “Believe!” over and over.

“Believe” still has the most beautiful proscenium framing in town, a gilded steampunk fantasia festooned with demonic “Donnie Darko” rabbits. The audio system is state-of-the-art surround sound — you feel as if phantoms are whispering just behind you — even if the music is bombastic and overloud.

You’ll come away remembering a handful of images: a shower of red poppies in a storm-gray sky, an outsize, disembodied bunny head that rolls over and tap dances on its ears.

And then there’s the chorus line of dancing bunnies — who have just torn Angel’s carcass limb-from-limb in vengeance for all the rabbits sacrificed in the line of magic.

But the pacing of the show remains erratic and listless. Angel’s frequent attempts to make the audience cheer (“Are you having fun?” “I can’t hear you!”) were rewarded with noticeably tepid applause from the crowd, which was perhaps at three-quarter capacity.

At what would seem to be the big finish, characters from Angel’s nightmare strap him to a gigantic mechanism and saw him in half with a chain saw — even this is greeted with a “so what?” shrug. The failure of the effect can’t even be called anticlimactic — there is no climax in “Believe.”

One of the oddest things about this show is that the audience still doesn’t recognize the performers’ curtain call when it arrives, and seem similarly confused about whether the show is actually over. It just sort of dribbles away.

This is the sort of thing that a director could have easily addressed, given a year’s time, which leads me to believe that Cirque is just letting “Believe” lie there, hoping unwitting customers will forget the reviews, until someone comes up with a plausible, face-saving reason to shoot it in the head and replace it.

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