At the height of triumph, a tragedy.
It was a ridiculously hot night in the middle of a heatwave. Still, an impressive spread of small plates and open bars along Mandalay Bay’s outdoor beach greeted those celebrating the official opening of “Michael Jackson One” on June 29.
Near-record heat couldn’t sour the year’s biggest new investment in Las Vegas casino entertainment. Or the closet thing to a sure bet that Las Vegas can guarantee for its top producer, Cirque du Soleil. An earlier, touring tribute to Jackson, “The Immortal,” had racked up $281 million by the time the resident show debuted.
But as the party started to regenerate around midnight when the second performance of “One” let out, Cirque officials were pulled aside to hear devastating news: Sarah Guillot-Guyard, a 31-year-old “Ka” acrobat at the MGM Grand, had fallen 94 feet to her death. Months later, investigators would determine a cable that suspended her was cut by its sheaving during one of her rapid ascents in the show’s climactic battle scene on a vertical wall.
It was the first performer death in Cirque history. “Ka” is still taking its time to phase the battle back in; company officials say it may not return until next summer (a video sequence currently stands in). But the reopening of the rest of the show on July 16 provoked an emotional standing ovation.
If “One” also represents the year’s artistic heights in casino-based offerings, it’s almost by default. The year lacked comparable investments in production shows, and waited until only a few days remained to debut a new headliner in Britney Spears.
Def Leppard’s nine-show stretch at the Hard Rock Hotel in March continued to compress the definition of a “residency,” even as the veteran rockers did it up right by resurrecting obscure songs to reward longtime fans.
Three of the year’s other worthy entries, Jabbawockeez, Human Nature and Recycled Percussion, were relaunches rather than new creations. If that dimmed the usual “what’s next?” appeal of the Strip, they were at least a testament to producers and casino hosts being patient enough to let acts evolve and develop.
And playing it safe yielded more contenders than eggy-faced embarrassments. There was a fine show onstage in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” but it proved a terrible idea to bring a drag musical with niche appeal to a limited run at the Palazzo last summer. Camp didn’t help “Dancing Queen” at Planet Hollywood Resort either, and the creator of “Menopause the Musical” found it to be formidable competition for the unintentional camp of a new work, “The D* Word” at the LVH.
All this is not to entirely damn “One” with faint praise. It’s better than “The Immortal,” taking advantage of the permanent location with jaw-dropping sound and special effects such as a holographic image of Jackson. And the wisp of a story is more about what Jackson means to his fans, avoiding the creepier aspects of the late entertainer’s psyche to freeze him in his MTV glory days.
Here’s the short list of the other noteworthy 2013 entries still worth your scrutiny next year, in no particular order:
■ “Million Dollar Quartet” — The demise of “Viva Elvis,” plus slow box office for the early months of this Broadway musical, make you wonder if Presley is still the king in Las Vegas. If he is dethroned, don’t blame this Sun Records history at Harrah’s Las Vegas. It’s a smart, cool reminder of why we care about Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Carl Perkins.
■ Jabbawockeez: “Prism” — The masked hip-hop dancers bring the audience right on top of the action in a cozy, custom 830-seat venue at Luxor. The carnival midway of a stage becomes a central character in this exuberantly youthful burst of energy.
■ Human Nature — A new stage, this one at The Venetian, also helped this Australian harmony quartet take its Motown tribute to the next level of contagious fun.
■ “Raiding the Rock Vault” — Speaking of fun, I saw lots of shows I knew were better in both concept and execution, but simply didn’t bring on the slap-happy smiles like this rock party at the LVH. Staged by a “nearly famous” band of players, it layers on actors and merrily Spinal Tap-ian themes about the majesty of rock.
■ Boyz II Men — If these R&B veterans come off like they’ve already been at The Mirage for years, that’s the good and bad of seeing veteran singers who can still wow us, even if they don’t surprise us.
■ “Veronic: Voices” — A Celine Dion-backed singing impressionist from Canada proved distinctly “Vegas,” both sublime and ridiculous. Veronic DiCaire’s amazing ability to imitate dozens of voices has that sideshow thrill that often makes us forget to ask, why are we doing this?
Karaoke tracks and English-as-a-second-language banter also give “Voices” a stiff, bolted-down feel. But, as Human Nature and the Jabbawockeez proved this year, patience and a more generous production budget just might pay off for Veronic next year.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.