Puppeteers hide behind their work, so there is no reason why you should know it's Michael Curry who brought forth crab monsters from the sand in "Ka" or bunnies to terrorize Criss Angel in "Believe."
Besides, Las Vegas showgoers have been introduced to him in reverse. If you've heard of Curry at all, it's probably because of his signature calling card, "The Lion King."
Disney's musical blockbuster came to Mandalay Bay nearly 12 years after it bowed on Broadway, leading Curry to plenty of work from Cirque du Soleil and "Le Reve" in the meantime.
But the Portland, Ore., designer owes his big show business break to Siegfried & Roy.
Curry's work fuses puppetry with costume design and mechanical effects. "I've always liked the human body, not just for its form but its motion," says the former gallery artist. "That's kind of what got me into theater. My sculpture needed to move.
"Some of my early work was motorized," he adds. "But I found it very cold, especially when contrasted against the beauty and poetry that happens when an object gets manipulated by a dancer."
Curry was still primarily a New York fine artist when Siegfried & Roy played Radio City Music Hall in 1988. Those dates were in transition to their new show at The Mirage, co-helmed by big-league theatrical designer John Napier.
"I had done a street performance. One of (Napier's) costume assistants showed him a Polaroid they took of it, and he said, 'Go find that guy,' " Curry recalls. When the two met, Napier showed him a conceptual drawing of a pair of wings, which looked uncannily like one of Curry's gallery sculptures.
"I know how to do it!" he announced.
Despite little knowledge of theater -- Curry hadn't even seen Napier's big hit, "Les Miserables" -- the designer had a knack for making conceptual drawings work in practical terms. As Curry collaborated on the evil queen's costume and other Siegfried & Roy wonders, Napier "took me aside at some point and said, 'Where did you come from?' "
Knowing more about anatomy than show tunes allowed Curry to help "Lion King" director Julie Taymor shape her vision of giving actors and their costumes equal balance; the audience would see the performers manipulate puppets or costume exoskeletons, allowing both human expression and theatrical illusion.
If the actors were completely masked, "the warmth would be gone," Curry says. "You would have lost a lot of the sense of spirit and storytelling, and the performer's ability to give further expression to these sculptures."
Curry says his proudest moment came when "The Lion King" played in Japan, and he met with master puppeteers. Their skills made his crew "semiamateur hacks" by comparison, he says, but they were nonetheless impressed by Curry's work with lightweight carbon-fiber masks and other performer-friendly innovations.
"We're in a wonderful time for somebody who likes to work with matter and physics," he says. "We have so many tools available."
Curry is now at work on the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. He's also coming in as a relief pitcher for "Viva Elvis" at Aria, adding some last-minute touches.
"I do this a lot. I'm Mr. Fix It," he says with a laugh. "It's a great idea to bring in fresh eyes near the end. Somebody else did 98 percent of the work and got too close to see it objectively."
Though Las Vegas is currently seeing a recession-era glut of stand-up comedians and solo Garth Brooks shows, Curry is bullish on the return of big-budget spectacle such as "Spider Man: Turn off the Dark," the upcoming Broadway musical that reunites him with director Taymor.
"Live theater is not going away," Curry says. "Now that we see so much of our life re-created on a flat screen, people -- without even knowing why it's so exciting -- are fascinated with something happening at this moment in reality.
"These real experiences are very sought after right now, and people don't even know why they respond that way."
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.