weather icon Clear

Cirque enlists Murren, looks to 2021 return

Updated November 25, 2020 - 3:50 pm

Cirque du Soleil has made plenty of news away from the stage in 2020, the numbing reality of shutting down all of its shows as COVID took hold in March.

But Las Vegas’ predominant production company is now talking about when it can come back to the stage. Cirque’s sale to new investors was finalized Tuesday. The company has thus emerged from bankruptcy protection and is surveying its future. Daniel Lamarre remains in his post as Cirque’s president and CEO.

Two significant Las Vegas officials are also formally joining the new Cirque management lineup: former MGM Resorts Entertainment Chairman and current Nevada COVID Task Force head Jim Murren, and MGM Resorts President of Entertainment and Sports George Kliavkoff.

In the afternoon of his company’s sweeping announcement, Lamarre was asked, simply: Are we going to be able to sit together at a Cirque show on the Las Vegas Strip one year from now?

“Yeah, oh yes, yes,” Lamarre said in a phone chat from Cirque’s Montreal headquarters. “If you’d asked me the same question a few weeks ago, I would have been very pessimistic, but not today.”

Lamarre says the three new vaccines on the horizon would allow Cirque to perform in theaters at full capacity when the company does start its relaunch in 2021 and into 2022. The general blueprint would be the distribution of vaccines in the U.S. beginning in December, followed by a loosening of restrictions into 2021 (first quarter would be the dream scenario), then the start of reopening Cirque theaters on the Strip.

The pandemic renders a specific reopening timeline impossible at this point. But Lamarre said the re-launch of shows would likely begin first with “O” at Bellagio and “Mystere.” The plan for which order the shows would continue to resume is not set, but Lamarre listed “Love” at Mirage, “MJ One” at Mandalay Bay and “Ka” at MGM Grand. Blue Man Group at Luxor, also a Cirque holding, would be among the earliest to return.

Shows would reopen every two weeks or so, ideally. Each production would require two months of rehearsal time, and cost several million dollars to return to the stage.

“We will have to lose some money, at first, to be able to make money,” Lamarre said.

Positive news can’t come soon enough for sidelined Cirque artists and workers in Las Vegas, fighting to access unemployment insurance and hoping new stimulus money is released by Christmas. The company has laid off a total of 3,500 employees over 44 international shows. That includes some 1,370 artists, technicians and support staffers in its Las Vegas productions.

That number of Strip shows was cut from six to five Nov. 16, when the company announced it would permanently close “Zumanity” after a 17-year run at New York-New York.

Even with those staggering losses, Cirque has actually reinforced its long-term position in Las Vegas and its partnership with MGM Resorts. In his two years with MGM Resorts, Kliavkoff has been working continually with the company in its Strip production shows. He will continue to serve as a key official when Cirque decides a plan for the Zumanity theater (and we do expect another Cirque title in that venue).

Murren was named Cirque’s new co-chairman along with Gabriel de Alba of lead investor Catalyst Capital Group. The ex-resorts official is well familiar with the production company from his years with MGM Resorts, running from 2008 through last February.

“We have known Jim Murren for a long time, and the new owners knew him very well,” Lamarre said. “It was very apparent after a few conversations we could convince him to join Cirque. It was really a matter of us chasing him. You can imagine, a guy of that stature has many people running after him to be on different boards.

“I think he joined because he loved Cirque, and believed in the future of our organization and can take us to the next level.”

Lamarre said Cirque sees an opportunity to actually expand its reach across the U.S., as MGM Resorts operates a half-dozen resorts across the country outside of its Strip hotels. MGM is also developing a resort in Japan. All of those properties would be available for Cirque production shows.

“The most important thing right now is we have hope at the end of the tunnel,” Lamarre said. “If we can start distributing vaccines as early as next month, that gives me a lot of optimism for Las Vegas. To be able to reopen with the same number of seats in our theaters would be an amazing bonus for us.”

Cirque is financially buttressed for the future, with a $375 million investment from a new collection of lenders seizing control of the company.

The names might be impersonal, but they are crucial to Cirque’s long-term viability.

The major players are led by Capital Catalyst Group, a prominent investment firm out of Toronto; Benefit Street Partners real-estate investment trust of New York; Sound Point Capital management firm of New York; and CBAM Partners, which is part of the Eldridge Industries empire founded by CEO Todd Boehly, who also owns 20 percent of the L.A. Dodgers and a piece of the L.A. Sparks WNBA franchise.

That group forced out the company’s previous investment team of U.S. equity firm TPG Capital, Fosun International of China, and Canadian lender Caisse de dépôt et du placement du Québec. Those investors bought out co-founder Guy Laliberte for $1.5 billion in 2015.

Cirque has not been totally silent through pandemic restrictions. The company continues to run “Joya” in Cancun and “X: The Land of Fantasy” in Hangzhou, the capital city of east China’s Zhejiang province. The “Cirque Dreams Unwrapped” Christmas show opened Nov. 15 at the Gaylord Hotel in Orlando, Fla.

But Las Vegas continues to serve as Cirque’s artistic center.

“Most of our artists live in Las Vegas. It’s easier for us to foresee when we will reopen a show in Las Vegas than anywhere else,” Lamarre said. “Las Vegas is our No. 1 priority.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.