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Cirque du Soleil's 'Viva Elvis' serves the king

The show has a VIP opening tonight. 'It's not a show about Elvis, it's a show with Elvis,' the producer says.

December 15, 2009|By Reed Johnson

Reporting from Las Vegas — Forget the iconic white jumpsuit, the caricature of gilded celebrity and the gossipy whispers that attended a dispirited legend's final bow.

Forget -- heaven help us -- the peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

That's not what “Viva Elvis,” Cirque du Soleil's latest acrobatic-musical extravaganza, is about.

Rather, Gilles Ste-Croix and Stéphane Mongeau were saying the other day, it's about evoking an extraordinary man and his shape-shifting times. It's about honoring a musician who unified the once-segregated genres of pop, gospel, country and blues into the mongrel art form known as rock 'n' roll, and ushered American pop culture into the frenetic, youth-centric Atomic Age.

It's about celebrating a prodigiously charismatic performer whose insistence on pleasing his audience helped resurrect a culturally moribund desert metropolis founded on sand and mob money. It's about conveying the genius of a crooning, gyrating entertainment genius of the 1950s and '60s to a generation that wasn't even born when Elvis Aaron Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, age 42, leaving rock temporarily monarch-less and much of the planet in mourning.

In short, it's about addressing a great epistemological conundrum of our times: What would Elvis do?

"Everything we did, we [thought] if Elvis lived today . . . then how would he do it, in the context of Las Vegas today?" said Ste-Croix, Cirque's senior vice president of creative content and new projects development, during an interview in Québécois-infused English with Mongeau last week. "That was the direction of the creators."

Ste-Croix and Mongeau, the show's executive producer, describe the new production not as a musical bio-drama, but as a "retro-contemporized" tribute that unfolds like a live concert. Although Cirque's production will reference certain key episodes of Presley's life and career, such as his service in the U.S. Army and his acting career, "it's not a historic show," Mongeau stressed.

"It's a show about a man, his emotion, what he brought," Mongeau continued. "And it's not a show about Elvis, it's a show with Elvis."

In keeping with that concept, none of the show's 75 artists -- including 26 dancers, 26 acrobats, four featured female singers and a live band -- actually will portray or otherwise represent Presley on stage. The king will be glimpsed in vintage film clips, graphic imagery and scenic and abstract props, such as a gigantic pompadour. But as far as impersonations, the Cirque creative team is leaving those to the legions of side-burned, rhinestone-studded guys who pop up in beery nightclub acts around town.

"It would not be fair for Elvis" to portray him, Mongeau said, "because Elvis is greater than what we could imagine."

In exploring Presley's musical legacy, "Viva Elvis" will highlight the singer's recorded voice on many of his signature tunes. But those unmistakable purrs and growls will be set to punchy new musical arrangements in a mode that Ste-Croix characterized as "Black Eyed Peas meet Elvis."

As the men spoke, a few feet away on a sprawling stage book-ended by two new monumental gold Elvis statues, a troupe of young dancers warmed up for the show's concluding number, “Viva Las Vegas,” inspired by the song and movie, in which Presley starred with Swedish sex kitten Ann-Margret, of the same name.

The venue, a custom-built 2,000-seat theater with every imaginable backstage technology and enough fly space to land a UFO, is among the prime attractions of the new ultra-upscale Aria Resort & Casino, the centerpiece of the massive new CityCenter urban complex on the Las Vegas Strip. "Viva Elvis" will christen the space with tonight's VIP opening performance; the first public previews will begin on Friday and the official premiere will be Feb. 19.

Back together

In a city where nuptial arrangements can be dicey affairs at best, the marriage (or menage) of Elvis, Vegas and Cirque seems almost celestially ordained, as did Presley's real-life gig there four decades ago.

With the demise of the Rat Pack and the emergence of the counterculture, Sin City by the late 1960s had degenerated into Squaresville, USA. Woodstock and the Haight, not Fremont Street, were where all the cool stuff was happening, and cruddy jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts, not seersucker jackets and beehive 'do's, were the ne plus ultra of youthful fashion.

When Presley was lured to Las Vegas in 1969 by entertainment mogul Kirk Kerkorian to perform at his International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton), he reclaimed it for the rock 'n' roll generation. (His peer, Barbra Streisand, achieved much the same thing for pop music when she began performing there at the same time.)

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