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Franco Dragone, Vegas entertainment visionary, dies at 69

Updated October 1, 2022 - 2:00 pm

Franco Dragone created the first Cirque du Soleil shows to play Las Vegas. He was the architect of Celine Dion’s ground-breaking production show, which would set the stage for superstar resident headliners on the Strip.

And he wasn’t finished.

“We always have several projects on the go,” Dragone CEO Francois Girard said. “This was a devastating surprise to all of us We will look to the future with the strength of the past, on the path paved by an extraordinary man, the legend we have lost.”

Dragone died of a heart attack while conducting business in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday. He was 69. His trip was also a for some needed vacation time. Dragone was a heavy smoker, but was known to be in relatively good health after recovering from leukemia last year.

News of Dragone’s death was posted on his official social media pages at about 11:45 a.m. Friday. The message was simply: “Franco Dragone, 1952-2022.”

Celine, to Cirque

“A New Day …” at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, in which Dragone worked with Dion and the late Rene Angelil, remains the top-grossing residency production ever in Las Vegas. The show ran from 2003-2007, earning $385.1 million. The show created the template for similarly scaled, superstar productions in Las Vegas.

“It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of my dear friend and collaborator Franco Dragone,” Dion posted on social media Saturday morning, conveying her feelings in English and French. “My most sincere condolences to his family, his loved ones and to all those who had the privilege to cross his path.”

Over the past couple of years, Dragone had returned to work in Las Vegas to collaborate with Criss Angel in “Amystika” at Planet Hollywood Resort. The production was paired with Angel’s own “Criss Angel Mindfreak” performed earlier in the evening.

This year, Dragone’s company opened an office in the Arts District, where his creative team have been developing multiple projects, for Las Vegas and internationally.

Dragone brought “Mystère” to Treasure Island in 1993, followed by “O” at Bellagio five years later. Dragone worked alongside Cirque co-founders Guy Laliberte and Gilles Ste. Croix to create the city’s predominant production company.

Cirque become the first company to present, over multiple shows, a blend of dance, circus acrobatics and clown-delivered comedy in a theater setting.

Dragone had originally met the Cirque team in the mid-’80s in Montreal, where he said he was chasing “a beautiful girl.” He had gained theater education and training from Belgium, where his family moved from Italy when he was a child. He directed workshops for teachers and students at The National Circus School. Laliberte saw a show, and invited Dragone to join his burgeoning performance troupe as a creator.

The partnership continues to pay off. “Mystere” and “O” remain two of Cirque’s best-selling productions. Dragone saw “O” upon its return from the pandemic shutdown. More than 20 years after bringing the show to fruition, the creator remained excited.

“What I will tell you is banal and all cliches, but what they do is so, so, so, impressive,” Dragone said during a walk from the O Theatre seating area to the lobby. “They respect every little detail. What they do is so very difficult, and maybe when people are watching, they don’t realize this. But here, we see the precision, every movement, every position of the body can send a different message.”

Cirque du Soleil said in a statement:

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Franco Dragone. Our hearts go out to his friends, family, and the entire Dragone organization. Franco was an industry icon. Responsible for some of our most successful productions, including Nouvelle Expérience, Alegría, Mystère, ‘O,’ and ‘La Nouba,’ he has contributed invaluably to the success of Cirque du Soleil.

“His passing is a loss not only for his family, but for the entire industry. Out of respect, tonight’s performances of ‘Mystère’ and “O” in Las Vegas will be dedicated to his life’s work.”

MGM Resorts International was in partnership with Cirque in “Mystere” for several years, when it owned T.I. (as MGM Mirage) prior to Phil Ruffin’s purchase of the property. MGM Resorts is still host to “O” at Bellagio. The company’s statement:

“Franco Dragone’s legacy in the world of entertainment in Las Vegas and around the world is unparalleled. While we are deeply saddened to hear of his passing, we are honored to be home to one of his most enduring shows – ‘O’ by Cirque du Soleil at Bellagio. His mark on the Las Vegas entertainment scene will live on and we are grateful for the opportunity to have worked with such a creative genius. Our thoughts are with Franco’s friends, family and fans around the globe.”

‘Le Reve’ and beyond

Following his time with Cirque, Dragone partnered with Dion in “A New Day …” He then created the long-running and critically acclaimed “Le Reve” at Wynn Las Vegas, which opened with the hotel in 2005.

Dragone continued to work on the production after early audiences complained it was too dark. Similar to “O” for its lavish aquatic elements, “Le Reve” would run 15 years and log more than 6,000 performances before being cut down by COVID (a new show in its place, “Awakening,” is targeting an October opening).

Elaine Wynn, who saw both “Le Reve” and “O” multiple times, said in text Saturday, “My heart is broken. Franco was the real Le Reve in all that he did. He was full of optimism about his many projects. A gentle man and an artistic genius.” Wynn also said “O’ was her favorite show she has seen, including superstar headliners and Broadway productions.

Known for his fanciful aquatic designs, Dragone went on to create “The House of Dancing Water” at Macao’s City of Dreams resort in 2010. The production was the largest water show in the world in its 2,000-capacity theater. A Dragone companion show, the adult-burlesque production, “Taboo,” opened in 2012.

He created “Story of a Fort, Legacy of a Nation,” which ran for a year in Abu Dhabi. His “Han Show” opened in Wuhan, China i 2014. A year later h brought “Paris Merveilles” to Paris’s Le Lido cabaret theater. His “Me,” a partnership with Russian singer Philipp Kirkorov, premiered at the Kremlin Palace in March 2016.

In 2017, just prior to his return to Las Vegas, Dragone opened “La Perle” in Al Habtoor City, Dubai, in a theater standing 10 stories high. It was another show incorporating water and acrobatics, along with fire and motorcyclists spinning in a metal sphere. The show took him five years to finish.

Dragone’s finances had been a source of controversy over the years. He had been under investigation for international tax fraud and money laundering charges for a period covering 2005-2012. in June 2020, the Belgian business publication Le Viv L’Express reported the country’s prosecutor’s office had brought charges against six people, including Dragone, in a case of tax fraud and money laundering.

Dragone aggressively rebutted the reports, saying, “I deny in all respects the tax facts alleged against me by the prosecution. It is important to emphasize that the indictment is directed against me and a heritage company, to the exclusion of all the other companies of the Dragone group.” He consistently and firmly denied any wrongdoing in the case.

His final act

At the time of Dragone’s passing, more than 100 million people had seen his creations around the world. He was eager to return to prominence in Las Vegas, where his concepts of dancing water and precision acrobatics continue to thrill audiences and drive business.

Angel would be his final star collaborator. The magician headliner posted Friday, “Today I lost my friend, brother, and partner Franco Dragone. He is and always will be a huge inspiration to me since I first saw his work in the 80’s. Hands down he was and always will be the most prolific director who changed the face of entertainment as we know it.

“I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to spend so much time working on what would be his last creation – ‘Amystika’ – which ironically celebrates its 100th show tonight. I’ll never forget the long days and nights together and the amazing friendship and how much love and respect we had for each other.”

Asked before the opening of “Amystika” if Cirque were a friend or a competitor, Dragone smiled and said, “Of course, the competition is there, but this is not my motivation. Cirque du Soleil? I love them. We both started from scratch together.”

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.

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