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The Playhouse in the Desert

Commentary * Las Vegas has always had its stage spectacles, but it wasn't easy to take them seriously. That's changing with some recent productions on the Strip.

March 12, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

LAS VEGAS — Every 90 minutes in front of Treasure Island resort and casino, a merry band of leaping, laughing, lip-syncing pirates hits the deck of the good ship Hispaniola.

"The Buccaneer Bay Show" isn't long on narrative, but here's what happens: The pirates point their cannons at the HMS Britannia, a few hundred yards to the north. Kaboom--flames, pirates and Brits plunge into the water. The Britannia sinks. The Brits lose every time. In basketball terms, they're the Washington Generals, eternally outplayed by the Harlem Globetrotters.

This is theater in Las Vegas.

Due south on Las Vegas Boulevard, in front of the $1.6-billion Bellagio hotel, the dancing-waters extravaganza "The Fountains at Bellagio" repeats every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the time of day. Like "The Buccaneer Bay Show," the synchronized spritzing cost about $33 million to open, plus another $6 million annually to operate. On this Saturday the geysers skyrocket and sway to the tune of "One" from the Broadway classic "A Chorus Line." Ooo! Sigh! Give her your attention! The crowd complies.

This, too, is theater in Las Vegas.

In a city of 120,294 hotel rooms and an equal number of all-you-can-eat buffet items, distinctions between "real" theater and "fake" theater coalesce amid the jangle and whir of the casinos.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 19, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
"O" costs-- Auditorium and production costs of Cirque du Soleil's "O" at Las Vegas" Bellagio Hotel totaled $101 million. An incorrect figure supplied by Bellagio personnel ran in last Sunday's story on Las Vegas theater.

Is such a city, for decades known as the home of the 6-foot showgirl in replicate, prepared for "Blue Man Group," an unlikely (and very funny) off-Broadway franchise featuring three shiny blue techno-aliens and a lot of percussion, opening officially Tuesday at the Luxor hotel?

Can the Gallic musical-theater spectacle "Notre Dame de Paris," a Euro-popped version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," find a niche for itself at the Paris Las Vegas hotel, where it opened in January?

If the answer is yes to either question, then the elastic notion of Las Vegas theater--theater in a city that is theater--may be in for another stretch.


Las Vegas theater redefined itself rather suddenly in 1993, when Cirque du Soleil opened a permanent (or "sit-down") production at Treasure Island. "Mystere" disarmed the city with a new sort of show biz: circus, plus theater, plus class.

Its popular success led to a second Cirque production, "O." Since 1998, Cirque's incomparable aquacade has serenely gone about its business inside the Bellagio, a $92-million production in a $100-million auditorium, built around a shape-shifting 1.5-million-gallon onstage water tank. Such expenditures may not be equaled any time soon, especially since Mirage Resorts Inc. (Bellagio's parent company) agreed to be acquired last week by MGM Grand Inc. in a $4.4-billion deal.

For now, and likely for years to come, "O" represents a pinnacle of New Vegas showmanship. It is Vegas-specific, yet it takes you someplace else, to a water planet like our own, but not like our own. It's a deservedly tough ticket--$110 on the high end, the highest on the Strip. It's beautiful enough to make you cry, all the way back to the blackjack table.

In one sense "O" stands alone; in another, in the year of Our Lord of the Dance 2000, it's just one more theatrical brand name for the taking. "Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance" plays eight shows weekly at New York New York Hotel & Casino. "Forever Plaid" continues an open-ended run at the Flamingo Hilton, its casino lobby cards heralding a show "direct from Broadway!" (That sounds better than the truth, which is "originally staged in an off-Broadway cabaret on the Upper West Side!")

The Strip has welcomed actual Broadway exports, too, and not just the limited runs of "Buddy" (concluding earlier this month at the Las Vegas Hilton) and the oldies revue "Smokey Joe's Cafe," Wednesday-March 29 at Caesars Palace.

"Remember when Broadway was Broadway?" That's how the Mandalay Bay production of the musical "Chicago" touted itself. Titles such as "Cabaret" and "Annie Get Your Gun" have been floated, though a replacement for the departed "Chicago" has yet to be announced.


Broadway has long been a part of this city's theatrical identity. These "tab" versions of proven shows played the hotels, cut down to a 90-minute running time. Two a night. In and out, and back to the tables.

The recent full-length "Chicago" didn't do gangbusters business; if it had, it'd still be razzle-dazzling 'em (it closed Feb. 27). The nearly yearlong run of that Bob Fosse slinker did, however, prove that "normal folk"--as one Vegas columnist wrote--could "sit still and even enjoy a theatrical evening that lasted 2 1/2 hours, intermission included."

Remarkably, normal folk in Boston, Chicago and New York have taken the 90-minute off-Broadway novelty "Blue Man Group" to their hearts. "Blue Man Group: Live at Luxor," currently in previews, may approximate the classic Old Vegas running time. But it's not "Forever Plaid." In a city testing its theatrical boundaries, this is the most tantalizing boundary-pusher afoot.

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