‘Zarkana’: Not your father’s Cirque production

Talk about getting it from all sides.

"Viva Elvis" will go down in history as the first certified failure, the undisputable blemish on the amazing success story of Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. But the president of the company caught hell from his own father for closing it.

"My dad was shouting at me. … He didn’t get it. ‘What are you doing Daniel? That was my favorite show. I loved it,’ " recalls Daniel Lamarre, the Montreal-based company’s CEO.

For the baby boomers who built Cirque from Canadian street theater to 5,000 employees, the Beatles’ music driving "Love" is their emotional touchstone. So Lamarre was proud to see "Elvis" at Aria provoke the same misty-eyed response from his parents.

"And then it clicked in my mind. My God, maybe that’s the problem," he says. "I think it was a great show, and that’s the sad part. I don’t think the problem was the show, I think it was the demographic of people coming to see the show. The people coming to see ‘Elvis’ were 70 and more."

Critics and many showgoers may take issue with the "great show" part. But attendance counts and demographics both tested the patience of MGM Resorts International, Cirque’s long-faithful corporate partner. Aria hosts the only theater in all of CityCenter, which MGM works to position as a hip urban oasis.

SUCCESSFUL IN NEW YORK

When a clear alternative presented itself, "Elvis" became the first of seven Cirque productions on the Strip to have the plug pulled. But the count held at six shows for less than three months. "Zarkana," opens its doors Thursday, with a "soft opening" leading up to a Nov. 9 party-night premiere.

On a practical level, "Zarkana" is a marriage of convenience. Lamarre says the fate of "Elvis" was accelerated – shelving plans to make the show more acrobatic and less biographical – the day Cirque’s founder, Guy Laliberte, turned to him during a performance of "Zarkana" in New York and said, "This would work in that (Aria) theater."

"We looked at each other and burst out laughing, and the rest is history." They invited CityCenter president Bobby Baldwin, who concurred. "It was so, so clear that the show would fit here."

Las Vegas also answers the question of where to go next for a successful title that spent two New York summers at Radio City Music Hall, selling about 550,000 tickets last summer and 450,000 this year, with comparable numbers for limited runs in Moscow and Madrid in between.

"It’s a luxury we never had in Las Vegas before, to come with a show that we know is working," Lamarre says.

On the other hand, "Zarkana" will have to turn the tide of chatter about whether Cirque has lost its creative mojo after "Elvis" and a drastic revamping of "Criss Angel: Believe," which opened about a year earlier.

"Zarkana" is a back-to-basics acrobatics showcase that detours from Cirque’s branded partnerships using the music and images of the Beatles, Elvis Presley and – coming next year to Mandalay Bay – Michael Jackson.

The touring version of the Jackson tribute "The Immortal" grossed $78.5 million in sports arenas the first half of this year, so it seems a sure thing despite its mixed reviews.

It’s the nonthemed "Zarkana" that will have to answer the question that’s now a ritual for the company: How many Cirques are too many for Las Vegas?

In the big picture, Cirque du Soleil still belongs far down on the list of things you have to worry about concerning the economic health of Las Vegas. The Montreal-based company is the runaway dominant player for ticketed entertainment, with nearly 120,000 tickets up for sale each week on the Strip.

SHOWCASE FOR CIRQUE TITLES IN LAS VEGAS

A James Cameron-produced 3-D movie, "Worlds Away," is set for wide release on Dec. 21, showcasing most of the resident Las Vegas titles within a connecting story.

Lamarre thinks the movie will reinforce what most locals already understand: That seven titles on the Strip offer something for everybody, from the family appeal of "Mystere" to the naughty humor of "Zumanity."

"When you see the images from one show to the next you realize how distinctive each show is," Lamarre says. Beyond that, he promises a Christmas present to the city that’s come to see Cirque as the benevolent landlord of a company town: "I knew it (already), but it was kind of in my face on how much this is an amazing commercial for Las Vegas."

Still, the magic of the slam-dunk hits "O" and "Love" seemed to disappear when "Believe" opened to jeers from critics and audiences alike on Halloween of 2008.

"Zumanity" and "Ka" also stumbled out of the gate, but in both cases Cirque lived up to its promise of "Give us time, we’ll fix it."

This time, the surgery was more drastic. Cirque turned creative control of "Believe" over to Angel, who gradually stripped it of acrobatics and dancing – nearly all of the Cirque content – to make it a more streamlined illusions show.

"I think what we did was a smart decision. Not an easy decision, but a smart decision," Lamarre says, "to understand that the two brands were conflicting. And when you understand that, then you have to act."

One brand had to become more dominant, he says. "Since we have so many shows in the city," Cirque let Angel take the spotlight from the acrobatics.

‘BIZARRE’ MEETS ‘ARCANE’

Acrobatics are back in full focus now.

"I think ‘Zarkana’ is tapping into the core of what Cirque du Soleil is about," says Francois Girard, the show’s writer and director. "I think the delivery of the acrobatics is right up there."

Girard first made a splash with the arty 1993 movie "Thirty-two Short Films about Glenn Gould," launching a diverse career that includes the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming "Parsifal."

But with "Zarkana" – which draws its title from the words "bizarre" and "arcane" – Girard says he looked backward to look forward. "I’m a firm believer in the roots of Franco Dragone. I’m a big admirer of Franco and you learn from his shows," Girard says of the "Mystere" and "O" director who struck out on his own to stage "Le Reve" at Wynn Las Vegas.

"I might have brought my thing, but I think I’m also very close to the acrobatic roots and serving the acrobats," Girard says.

Cirque also sought a harder edge in the music by Nick Littlemore, referred to the company by Elton John. Littlemore’s credits include the Australian pop-rock band Empire of the Sun and the electronica duo Pnau, which remixed John songs for the album "Good Morning to the Night," with big-selling results overseas.

"It’s a different sound, you haven’t heard that music from Cirque du Soleil," Girard says of a soundtrack he calls "more of a rock exploration."

"People like to say, and I agree, that Guy Laliberte has reinvented circus art," says Lamarre, who joined Cirque in 2001 and now shoulders most of the day-to-day decisions for the founder.

"I think our challenge today is to reinvent Cirque du Soleil," he says. "If we want to be able to remain cutting edge, we have to reinvent ourself all the time."

Still, the family-friendly "Zarkana" makes it seem like close competition for Cirque’s first permanent Las Vegas production, "Mystere," more than any of the titles that followed.

That could be more of a problem for Cirque than for MGM Resorts, which no longer owns Treasure Island and would understandably be happy to have a "Mystere"-like title back in its fold.

"MGM is a fair negotiator enough to allow ‘Mystere’ to continue to be promoted with all our portfolio shows," Lamarre says.

Besides, he adds with a smile, "I would not advise anybody in this city to talk against ‘Mystere.’ It’s amazing how much of a relationship there is with that show and the Vegas people. Because for them that was a breakthrough."

"If we want to do the analogy between the two shows," he adds, "I would say ‘Mystere’ was obviously the first breakthrough of Cirque in Vegas, and ‘Zarkana’ is probably a new breakthrough of Cirque in the new Vegas.

"Because Vegas has changed a lot in the last few years, and I think Zarkana is a way for us to go in that new Las Vegas direction, which is much more modern, much younger."

He only hopes his father would agree.

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

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