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‘Viva Elvis’

The voice is familiar. The music? Not always.

About 30 Elvis Presley classics are heard in "Viva Elvis," the Cirque du Soleil salute to the king which has its invitation-only premiere at Aria today after two months of previews.

But the nine-piece band playing the classics often steers those hits in new directions, sometimes trying to imagine how Elvis would do them today.

You won't hear much meddling with the lean rockabilly sound of "Mystery Train." But "Jailhouse Rock" sidesteps into hip-hop and "Got A Lot O' Livin' to Do!" ventures into Zeppelin-esque guitar rock.

"You have a lot of shows paying homage to Elvis doing exactly the same stuff, but this is Cirque," says Erich van Tourneau, the show's musical director and arranger. "Cirque is innovative, Elvis was innovative, so I think that's the correct way to approach it -- to keep him moving artistically."

The creators of "Viva Elvis" do not deny taking inspiration from a popular remix of "A Little Less Conversation," which caught on via a Nike ad after the original resurfaced in the "Ocean's Eleven" remake.

But that doesn't fully explain the path of decision-making in the show's three-year development.

Once Cirque committed to bringing Elvis back to the Strip in 2006, the producers set out to license his recordings. "The voice of a man in this cannot be anyone but Elvis. Otherwise it becomes an impersonator," says Gilles Ste-Croix, the veteran Cirque executive overseeing the production.

But the other choice was to play all the music in the show live. It creates a concert atmosphere and sets "Viva" on a different track from the Beatles tribute "Love," in which Cirque acrobats perform to remixes of the original recordings.

Matching recorded Elvis to live performance became "a big puzzle," van Tourneau says, both technological and creative. The music director listened to more than 900 Presley recordings -- interviews and home tapes as well as official studio albums -- deciding which songs were essential and what to sample for bits of drop-in material.

The producers often had trouble isolating the vocal track -- Elvis liked to lay it down with the band, not in the isolation of a vocal booth -- and they didn't have access to the masters of early classics such as "Jailhouse Rock." Van Tourneau turned to live recordings, often gravitating to the 1968 TV "Comeback Special."

"He was at the top of his game then. I would go with the young, dangerous and hungry Elvis first, every time I could," he says.

Since "Viva" is also biographical, the creative team decided a few songs could take an outside perspective, voiced by the four live female singers. Being freed from having to match time or key signatures of the records opened the door to dramatic reinterpretation: "King Creole" goes reggae; "One Night With You" gets a wispy Norah Jones feel, with Presley coming in as a ghostly backing vocal.

But preview audiences reminded the directors why Elvis hits are seldom covered. He was the show, and the songs lose traction without him.

"I think what people attach to is his voice," says Kit Chatham, the percussionist, who, like other members of the band, shows up in different places without being tethered to one bandstand. "If that (voice) wasn't there, it wouldn't have the same meaning, the same influence."

Since ticketed previews began in December, the dancing and acrobatics have been souped up, "and Elvis has been put more into the songs, which is great," Chatham says.

Tinkering kept the cast and crew still working past midnight in post-show rehearsals last week, as they edged toward today's premiere. "Burning Love" has gone through three treatments. "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was out of the show for a time, before creators came to their senses. (It now accompanies a flying duet.) At one point, "Suspicious Minds" was a duet between Elvis and one of the singers.

"We ran it a few times and it didn't feel right," Ste-Croix says. The song was "so big an Elvis piece, we could not go there. We kept Elvis' voice with the backing vocals of the girls."

The faithful who grew up with Elvis in the 1950s might yet be the show's toughest critics. "I'm sure hard-core fans will find something in this show, but they have to keep their mind open and experience something new," van Tourneau says, noting the original recordings still wait for them at home.

But "Viva Elvis" will have to have a multigenerational appeal to be a long-term hit. And that means reintroducing the king on a level deeper than the jumpsuited caricatures who roam the Strip.

Chatham was born in 1977, the year Presley died. "I have so much more appreciation for Elvis than I did coming in," he says. "Listening to some of the songs now and listening to him singing, you're like, 'I never really listened to this. Wow!' The dude could sing like crazy.''

Van Tourneau agrees. "He was so dangerous he was punk at the beginning. If you listen to those tapes, he's, like, on fire."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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