Of course, Cirque du Soleil wants you to see all of its Las Vegas shows. Knock yourself out, I’m sure they would say.
But if you take them out of the order of arrival and start with “Zarkana,” I don’t think anyone would argue with that either.
Not that you’ll see ads that say, “This one’s better if you haven’t seen our other shows.”
Or even ones proclaiming, “It’s a great introduction to the fresh way of doing a circus that put Cirque on the map. And you don’t have to like Michael Jackson.”
But it’s all true. It’s not the fault of “Zarkana” that it was ninth out of 10 Cirques to play in residency on the Strip (counting the first, “Nouvelle Experience,” and “Viva Elvis,” which “Zarkana” replaced at Aria). Especially after Cirque took “Zarkana” back to the drawing board to make sure your first time won’t be a disappointment.
What’s now the third iteration of “Zarkana” is fast and lively, even if it lacks a point of distinction among its brethren. It’s closer in content and tone to the arthouse variety show “Mystere” than the more focused concepts of “Ka” and “Zumanity,” or the music-themed “Love” and “Michael Jackson One.”
(And if it’s so close to “Mystere” that it poses a tough decision for consumers, that’s Cirque’s problem, not Aria’s: MGM Resorts can market “Zarkana” among its own properties, leaving people to find the independently owned Treasure Island on their own.)
Without doubt, the new version is better than the middling one that landed at Aria in the fall of 2012, after its second summer at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. By then, “Zarkana” already had shed English-language songs and most of the story about a magician who revives the ghosts of an abandoned theater in a bid to reunite with his lost love.
Now, even the magician is gone. (His name was Zark, but the title remains a combination of the words “bizarre” and “arcane.”) It’s up to two clowns (Gabe del Vecchio and Stas Bogdanov) to awaken the theater’s ghostly “Movers,” as the “spirits of the theater” are known in the official synopsis.
I kind of liked movie and opera director Francois Girard’s atypically quiet, moody opening when the theater slowly stirred to life. The comparative jump-start is at least a trade-off. It gets the show quickly out of the gate and allows a whole new act to be squeezed into the same running time.
That would be the “aerial strap” duo Kevin and Andrew Atherton, identical twins who soar out beyond the curtain line of the proscenium stage, which often makes the action (as it did with “Elvis”) appear more distant than the Cirques with thrust stages.
More subliminal changes include punchier music from composer Nick Littlemore, who replaced much of his cinematic underscore. The rest of “Zarkana” relies upon the strength of the individual acts, since most of the transitions are gone. The two clowns are called upon to cover changes behind the curtain at least twice more than their two sketches with props.
There is no longer any attempt to explain why singer Cassiopee shows up as a snake or spider lady, since they are no longer out to jealously thwart the magician. Now she’s just part of the cool production design framing the flying trapeze or, in the case of the snake lady, high-wire artists Pedro Carillo and Luis Acosta. These crazy guys manage to jump rope, or over one another, while dodging a pendulum of fire.
With the focus on acrobatics, we find plenty to amaze us and power us past a couple of acts that don’t. (If you’re not particularly brave but still dream of running off to join the circus, you could try to be one of the four guys who throw and catch flags.)
Carole Demers does impossible somersaults on the Russian barre held aloft by two guys hauling the beam around, making it a moving target.
In the climactic “Banquine,” three guys pile into a human tower, so that more guys on the ground can hurl a woman up to the top of the stack.
And on the “Wheel of Death,” Carlos Marin and Jayson Dominguez climb out on top of what resembles the cars of a spinning carnival ride to jump rope or leap and grab their own shins.
If we’ve seen this act in “Ka,” or the trapeze act in “Mystere” and U.S. circuses, it circles back to the only real drawback of “Zarkana.” That familiarity, or at least the lack of a strong point of departure.
One striking moment seems to have survived all three versions: Andrey Kolotenko’s expressive hand-balancing centered between two grand pianos in duet. It’s hypnotic, the very definition of how Cirque blends art and athleticism.
If you stick to the plan, and see “Zarkana” first, this is part the other titles will have to measure up to. If it’s too late, and you can’t unsee those other Cirques, it will at least remind you why we still care. And why Cirque collectively is a tough act to follow.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.