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November 26, 2014

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Behind the scenes of Cirque du Soleil’s Viva Elvis at Aria

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Tom Donoghue/www.donoghuephotography.com

The Viva Elvis media tour at CityCenter’s Aria on Feb. 19, 2010.

Viva Elvis Media Tour

The Viva Elvis media tour at CityCenter's Aria on Feb. 19, 2010. Launch slideshow »
Click to enlarge photo

The Viva Elvis media tour at CityCenter's Aria on Feb. 19, 2010.

Click to enlarge photo

The Viva Elvis media tour at CityCenter's Aria on Feb. 19, 2010.

Click to enlarge photo

The Viva Elvis media tour at CityCenter's Aria on Feb. 19, 2010.

Click to enlarge photo

The Viva Elvis media tour at CityCenter's Aria on Feb. 19, 2010.

Incredibly, there are 120 costume changes for the Viva Elvis cast in just the first 20 minutes of the new Cirque du Soleil show at MGM CityCenter’s Aria. Even more extraordinary is that the shortest time between one of the changes is 44 seconds! In all, the cast has 385 looks in the show using 4,000 pieces in 93 minutes.

Little wonder the wardrobe people say that the cast is as choreographed backstage as they are onstage. They change wherever they can during the show: in stairwells, the basement, on moving sets and structures, and even in their dance studio as racks of clothes roll by.

“In addition to the wardrobe folks and costume designers, we have eight people brought in nightly to help them get undressed and dressed, and even with 15 of us, we need to hire more people to keep pace with the speed. It’s a kick-ass team under great pressure at high speed,” one of the wardrobe executives told me on a backstage tour of Viva Elvis. The closing numbers alone of “Hound Dog” with 40 girls dancing and “Suspicious Minds” use 14 showgirl costumes and 45 jumpsuits, and there are duplicates of each on standby.

Cirque officials told me that there are more costumes in Viva Elvis than any other Cirque show on the Strip. There also is more dancing and choreography in Viva Elvis than any other Cirque show in Las Vegas.

All the backstage department heads I talked with on the tour confirmed that they’d been tweaking the show right up to last Friday’s star-studded premiere. Executive producer Stephane Mongeau told me: “We opened prematurely trying to tie into the MGM corporate openings in December, so we knew we would go back into January rehearsals to fix things. It was a good thing because we got public feedback about what worked and what didn’t, so we knew what had to be fixed.

“The devil is always in the details, but now all the worries are behind us. Over the course of three years, we are proud of what we have achieved. As we brought something this huge to life, you have to tweak right up until the last minute. We even added new video on the night of the premiere! That’s our evolution, a work in progress during previews.”

Cirque creative team members said that they would continue to tweak, as they do with all Cirque shows. Priscilla Presley wants to include more personal touches, with additional home movies, and she wants Cirque to add a video of him performing “Jailhouse Rock” during that number. The dance duo Nappytabs told me they added funkier, hip-hop to the routines right up until a week before opening. “Elvis had that soul, so we brought in a newer, cooler edge so the dances are more what he would have moved to today rather than a period piece. It wasn’t just about his music; it was also about his movement.”

Backstage, the acrobats and dancers confirmed that the trampoline act is the most fun and comfortable and that the giant “Jailhouse Rock” routine is the most uncomfortable hanging, walking and dancing upside down. “It’s also the most unique and creative thing you’ve ever seen on a stage,” I was told. “The dancers and acrobats can’t do it for more than 4 minutes, though, because the blood rushing to their heads could make them pass out.”

There’s an exact replica of the car that Elvis gave his manager Col. Tom Parker and also a replica of Elvis’ own Pink Cadillac that the dancers use nightly in the opening numbers. That alone cost $100,000 to build with its electric motor. It is repainted every 90 days and will be replaced with a new model every two years.

Here are other fun facts I discovered on my tour with contributing photographer Tom Donoghue, who compiled this extraordinary photo gallery for us.

*The 28 acrobats in the show hail from eight countries.

*The wardrobe department cares for 135 custom-fitted wigs, include 45 Elvis wigs. The dancers wear 400 pairs of shoes during each performance, and doubles are kept at the ready. Their costumes include 53,000 Swarovski crystal rhinestones and 8,000 printed feathers.

*Fifteen technicians run wardrobe; there are 100 technicians total. The stage measures 20,000 square feet, with the ceiling grid 1,055 feet above it. The dancers are 30 feet from the stage to the first-level basement and 60 feet from the sub-basement. There are 17 elevators bringing sets up and onto the stage, one of which is an 18- by 20-foot lift capable of loading 27,000 pounds.

*Cirque built into the 1,840-seat theater, with its proscenium measuring 80 feet wide by 50 feet tall and holding 176 audio speakers with 36 subwoofers, 20 of which are in the floor. It’s the largest single-ring, fiber-optic audio transport system in the world. It takes four front projectors and two overhead projectors to show the videos on a LED wall made up of eight columns measuring 30 feet by 40 feet.

*The heaviest set is the “Jailhouse Rock” staging. It weighs 90,000 pounds and measures 39 feet tall, 66 feet wide and 45 feet deep. It rolls in on six drive wheels operated by a remote computerized system. The seven trampolines used in “Got a Lot of Loving” set weigh 60,000 pounds. The aerial guitar, modeled after one of Elvis’ guitars, weighs 2,000 pounds.

*The blue suede shoe weighs 1,500 pounds and is nearly 30 feet. The large hoops for the acrobatic duo performances are modeled after Elvis and Priscilla’s engagement rings. The American flag, made of boxer shorts, has 48 stars because Elvis enlisted in 1968, which was just before Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union.

*Elvis recorded more than 700 songs, 149 of which made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 charts -- 18 were No. 1 hits. Ten albums reached the top spot for a total of 80 weeks. To this day, he still holds the record of selling more than reportedly 1 billion records. The largest number of people in one place to see Elvis was at his Houston Astrodome concert with 207,494. However, his Aloha From Hawaii TV special garnered a reported 1.5 billion viewers.

*My final fun fact: Each show, the dancers distribute 30 scarves to members of the audience, and another 200 printed Elvis scarves are dropped from the ceiling. That’s 2,300 a week and more than 150,000 a year. The individual cost is unknown since they are purchased in bulk, but even at $1 each, that’s still a hefty giveaway!

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.