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New Criss Angel show is unbelievably bad, sad

Wooooooooow. Criss Angel’s new Cirque du Soleil show is terrrrrrible.

I had heard firsthand from some people who had seen “Believe” that it was abysmal and maybe unfixable, creatively. So my expectations were rock-bottom low (although open-minded), when I saw it Friday on opening night. And yet, it was EVEN WORSE than how it was described to me.

How bad could it be? Oh my God! Let me see if I remember how to spell this: “D.I.S.A.S.T.E.R.”

Here’s the plot of the show in a nutshell:

Angel, the illusionist, pretends to get electrocuted. He’s wheeled off on a gurney. Dancers in tutus and Old English business suits do uninspiring choreography (I kept thinking, “You’re kidding me”), while they wear bunny ears reminiscent of the warped film classic, “Donnie Darko.”

For the next hour-plus, you see Angel’s dreamscape/nightmare, where he utters vapid things in his sharp New Jersey accent to Frenchy Cirque clowns. He pulls birds out of thin air. He runs behind a video screen, where he changes clothes and reappears.

He gets married; he hangs upside-down in a straight jacket, which he escapes; and then this nightmare ends. What follows from the crowd may look like a standing ovation, but I was on my feet to flee.

Worst of all, that storyline is drawn out forevvvvver. If Cirque thinks the sleeeeepy-paced execution of the plot in this supposed-$100 million show is engaging, then so would watching a cat poop in a gilded box.

I think of “Believe” as a concept-driven avant-garde performance art, gone awry. In Saturday’s Review-Journal, critic Mike Weatherford hit the nail on the head. He compared “Believe” to an episode of “Mystery Science Theater” minus the ha-ha. I was reminded of those awful old movies by Andy Warhol or Ed Wood, which is to say it seems like “Believe” was made to be bad ON PURPOSE.

Obviously, “Believe” was not made to be bad on purpose, and that makes things even worse, since they are TRYING to make a great show. It’s even suckier than famously bad movies. “Believe” makes “Ishtar” look like comic gold. It makes “Gigli” seem fast-paced. At least you can laugh at “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”

There are people at Cirque who think some of us Review-Journal columnists are biased against “Believe.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I love some Cirque shows, and before Friday, I had never seen Angel’s TV show, “Mindfreak,” or “Believe,” or talked to him. I have no stake in him or the show, positive or negative, except that as a Las Vegan, I am STILL hoping Angel and “Believe” might help the economy.

Besides, if they think we’re out to get “Believe,” then how do they square other columnists who hammered the show in weekend reviews?

L.A. Times writer Richard Abowitz compared “Believe” to the “heinous” movie “Showgirls.” The Las Vegas Sun’s Joe Brown compared it to “Showgirls” and “Springtime for Hitler,” conjuring the words, “bomb,” “banal,” “bombastic,” “so boring,” “charmless” and “no shock, no awe, precious little surprise.”

Now, let’s look at the two halves of “Believe”: Cirque and Angel. Certain Cirque fans will probably be disappointed there are few and unimpressive aerialist and acrobatic elements. Certain Angel fans may be shocked to see he often just kind of walks around slowly in silence, fitting “Believe’s” melancholy atmospherics.

His “magic” acts are concealed in fog and junk. They seem more like staged representations of magic, rather than illusions that require suspension of disbelief. If that’s what they’re going for — representative magic — that would be fine if the execution worked for me. It doesn’t.

If Cirque positively revamps this show, that would be awesome for the sake of art and commerce. On the red carpet, I asked Carrot Top if there’s pressure on “Believe” to deliver the goods, since a fun show could bring in needed tourists. He addressed his answer to fit not “Believe” but his own performances.

“You want to put an even better show on, because you want people to think they spent the money on the right thing to do that night to entertain themselves,” he said. “You always want to do better when things are tough.”

I asked Penn Jillette if a successful “Believe” would help Vegas.

“Oh sure,” he said. “Anytime there’s a good show, it helps every show. It raises all boats. When you see a good show, you want to see another one. So we’re hopeful” about “Believe.”

To be clear, Jillette or Carrot Top made these comments before seeing “Believe,” and I couldn’t find them after the premiere to ask what they thought. Not that it matters especially. I’m merely pointing out the obvious, that a successful “Believe” could boost the Strip.

On this subject, Cirque’s upper echelon says it already has helped the economy, that ticket sales are great, on the level of “Love.” So there’s a powerful consideration against critical judgment.

And for sure, there are tourists who are keen on “Believe.” At Friday’s “black carpet” premiere, the first family of three I found (they were observing the carpet stars), loved “Believe.” The mom, who would only name herself as “Deb from Philly,” said her teenage-ish kids Kyle and T.J. were thrilled to see Angel in person during a “ticketed preview” earlier in the week.

“He stood right next to us,” she said. “It was very cool.”

So — cliché — we’ll see what happens next.

Personally, I don’t think Angel is the main problem in “Believe.” Sure, his incongruous acting could be stronger, and his illusion-esque acts are often rabbit-sleeve simple. But Angel’s role is so creatively blah, I wouldn’t have been fazed if the show had starred an unknown actor or actress in the lead.

What I mean is, even though Angel is a partner in the production, the woes are on Cirque’s shoulders. Isn’t Cirque the boss and overseeing direction and writing? What do they think they’re doing by filling space with people dancing in boring unison, and walking around slowly to little effect, and poorly using a big video screen backdrop that changes scenery?

After Friday’s premiere, Cirque and Angel hosted a lovely V.I.P. party at the Luxor pool. There were high-end food booths, signature booze drinks, women models clad in not-much, and most strikingly there were intermittent pockets of Cirque performers dancing and gyrating and doing feats of derring-do.

This party was more fun than “Believe,” by far. It was symbolically the latest, impressive excess of a Gatsby party accompanying a new show, but in hard times.

I’m not really pooh-poohing the excess. No. Perhaps, though, Cirque should think, next, about selling admission to such a Gatsby Cirque party, which also had no great plot, but it was paced more suitably, it was more enchanting, and it was a post-show relief, because to me, “Believe” is one of the saddest stage productions in the history of sad, and I get no joy in saying so.

Doug Elfman’s column appears on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 383-0391 or e-mail him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He also blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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