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December 20, 2014

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Review: Cirque repackages rock ‘n’ roll icon in ‘Viva Elvis’

Show at CityCenter’s Aria is Cirque’s seventh in Las Vegas

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Julie Aucoin/Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Viva Elvis at MGM CityCenter’s Aria.

Special Section

'Viva Elvis' by Cirque du Soleil

  • Where: At Aria at CityCenter.
  • When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday-Tuesday (dark Wednesday and Thursday).
  • Tickets: $99-$175; 590-7760, arialasvegas.com.
  • Running time: 90 minutes.

Viva Elvis opening

Actor Chris Noth talks to the media Friday during the blue carpet premiere of Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

Viva Elvis

Cirque du Soleil's Viva Elvis at MGM CityCenter's Aria. Launch slideshow »

Viva Elvis Blue Carpet

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

Viva Elvis Blue Carpet @Aria

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

"Viva Elvis," which officially opened at CityCenter’s Aria Friday night after weeks of paid previews and adjustments, joins six other Strip-resident shows, and it’s likely to be lucky number seven for Cirque du Soleil.

The show is a pretty mess. Gimmicky, bright and loud, in Technicolor and Cinemascope, it’s a theme-park "Grease" reunion, a sequence of live-in-person Gap commercials with the budget of an Olympics opening ceremony.

And it delivers exactly what many — most, probably — want from a Vegas show. Which would be vivid image after eye-sizzling sensation. Cirque is at its peak technically here — nobody (except maybe China) can top the Canadian spectacle factory’s powers when it comes to creating visceral images. But the flaw of this show, the missed opportunity, is that something so stylish is so insubstantial.

"Viva Elvis" cherry-picks key scenes from the American rock ‘n’ roll icon’s life and career — his Southern Baptist boyhood, his explosion on the scene, Army enlistment, movie career, marriage to Priscilla, his Las Vegas reincarnation — and feeds them into the kinetic Cirque kaleidoscope, along with a big scoop of kitsch Americana, the requisite jukeboxes, chrome diners and pink Cadillacs.

What emerges is a remixed, repackaged, renovated and retrofitted Elvis for a generation that missed out on the days of the King. The trouble is they’re trying to mythologize the already mythic — what they used to call "gilding the lily." The directors and designers have taken the all-too-familiar iconography of Elvis, dipped it in cheese, deep-fried it, sprayed a hard candy coating over it and dished it up on a stick. Eighteen-hundred served, twice nightly. Next!

Director/choreographer Vincent Paterson has dispensed with the Cirque-standard pre-show clowning, opting for two dozen or so bobbysoxers, hype-women who gab and flirt with audience members, then rush the stage at the feverish, throbbing overture, grab the stage curtain, festooned with gold platters, sending it melting into the wings. It’s a startlingly beautiful effect: a Cirque curtain flourish is always an event.

The usual Cirque specialty acts — jugglers, aerialists, gymnasts — take a back seat to the theme, and their feats feel merely pretty. We’re distanced from that nail-biting, thrilling marvel of human accomplishment we still feel in the first Strip Cirque, "Mystere." No one performer really stands out.

We get the expected with quasi-erotic pas de deux, one of them airborne, sexy sky-dancing to "Are You Lonesome Tonight"; another earthbound, as a couple contorts in athletically push-and-pull modern dance to "Suspicious Minds."

There’s no game-changing a la "Ka" or "O" with the "Viva Elvis" stage: things inventively rise from the floor and less surprisingly drop from the ceiling; there’s flying, floating and bouncing. But Cirque does show off a few nifty new tricks, chief among them a spot of upside-down ceiling-walking. Effects seen elsewhere — the trampoline bit from "The Beatles: Love," say — get some extra bounce here. As Elvis romps through "Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do," acrobats in sprayed-on superhero suits and luchador masks (don’t ask), are gravity-spurning wall-walkers — it looks like movie stunts run forward and back. The fellows who juggle pistols and twirl flaming lariats are pretty dang impressive.

And I may be wrong but I don’t think I’ve seen pole-dancing in a Cirque production before this. Undulating to a sexed-up, Latin-ized version of "It’s Now or Never," four dancers work on earthbound poles, while two pairs of female aerialists ride their props in the sky.

Our tour guide is Col. Tom Parker, Presley’s manager and mentor, who appears now and then to narrate — in his first appearance, Parker floats across the stage atop a black-and-white television set, complete with rabbit ears. Parker is played by Garrett Eugene Case Jr., whose down-home affect resembles one of those animatronic Country Bears at Disneyland; his spiels have all the substance of a roadside plaque at an historic rest area. "Elvis believed that music could change the world!" "Elvis loved being an actor!" "Elvis put Las Vegas on the map!" Like the show itself, Col. Tom doesn’t say anything new about Elvis, or offer any sense of the man as a force and phenomenon.

Paterson leaves no space unfilled. His stage is in constant motion, and it’s not possible to take in everything that’s going on at once. Paterson creates some vivid scenes — I’ll remember the snappy, swingy, martial drumline version of "Return to Sender," with guys in fatigues, and girls in air-mail envelope dresses. But some of it is just dumb and obvious: Not 10 minutes have passed before, duh!, a giant blue shoe is wheeled out — they don’t even do much with it, just some hand-walking and sliding. The dancing is near-constant, but it’s a predictable pastiche of ’50s and ’60s styles, with squads of kids jitterbugging and frugging en masse.

Click to enlarge photo

Cirque du Soleil's Viva Elvis at MGM CityCenter's Aria.

There are some visual stunners: A black Priscilla atop a 25-foot three-tiered wedding cake is surrounded by tuxedoed Ken dolls on roller skates, who tug the wedding gown’s train to create a screen for wedding footage. A chain-gang hauls out a colossal multilevel prison set, and the jailbirds romp around the jungle gym to "Jailhouse Rock," (this gymboree reminded me of the jailhouse scene in "Chicago").

Watching "Viva Elvis" is an oddly inert and passive experience, like watching a movie. Maybe that’s the intent — some of the seating in the handsome, Googie-inspired theater on the second floor of Aria, is designed to resemble loveseats or bucket seats at a drive-in movie. But aside from the preset feelings evoked by the songs themselves, it doesn’t grip or engage the emotions. And it feels long. I checked my watch about an hour into the 90-minute show, and we were only up to 1957! Elvis didn’t even hit Vegas until 1970.

Elvis, rightly, steals the show--but not in the way Cirque may have intended. "Viva Elvis" distracts from itself: Filled with images — Elvis kissing, Elvis pouting, Elvis rocking, in movie clips and photo montages, animated, candy-colored, in Warhol multiples — are so captivating and charismatic, that they distract, and even worse, render much of the Cirquetry going on around them mundane.

If you remember anything, for good or ill, it will be the music. A mix of original vocal and instrumental tracks — beefed up, tricked out, mashed-up — with an onstage band and four featured female singers who each duet with Elvis. Cirque took the sonic lessons learned from "The Beatles: Love" and go even farther, giving an "Abbey Road" sheen to the earthy early Elvis tracks. With two drummers and a horn section, "Burning Love" gets a jacked-up wallop, while "Bossa Nova" gets the "Mambo No. 5" treatment with overdriven, room-filling, internal-organ-rearranging surround-sound.

All of a sudden, it’s finale time. And when dozens of Elvii, male and female, began descending the staircase in their plastic pompadours and Fruit Loop-hued fringed jumpsuits, I thought not of Elvis, but of the Brady Bunch. And not even the real Brady Bunch, but the 1995 movie version, in which the kids enter a school talent contest to save their family home...

The cast members valiantly try to force the crowd to stand and sing, a la “Mamma Mia!” But “Hound Dog” is no “Dancing Queen."

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