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THE MOVABLE BUFFET

'Zumanity' and 'Le Rêve' make the most of their second chances

March 15, 2009|Richard Abowitz

For most shows and headliners, Vegas is a brutally sink-or-swim environment: Resorts have no issue closing down a show if it is not working, especially in today's economy.

A recent show at the V Theatre in the interior mall of Planet Hollywood did not survive even its first week, and few shows are given as long as a year to find their niche. But then there are the rare exceptions that are given substantially longer to reinvent themselves. Two shows that have benefited from that opportunity are "Zumanity" at New York New York and "Le Reve" at Wynn, which both opened to less-than-warm receptions but have found a way to balance artistic vision with the narrow expectations of Vegas audiences.

All Cirque du Soleil shows are known for going through a period in which the production is worked over by the creative team -- "fixation," as Cirque calls it -- but when "Zumanity" opened in September 2003, the troupe's first erotic show seemed in dire need of change.

"People were coming away thinking the show was very dark, kind of crass and kind of vulgar," said James Hadley, Cirque senior artistic director. "They were not enjoying themselves as much as we hoped they would. We wanted to take the sensuality to another level, but we may have crossed a line and made it too vulgar."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 15, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Las Vegas shows: A photo caption with the Movable Buffet column in today's Calendar section says the photo is from Cirque du Soliel's Las Vegas show "Zumanity" at New York, New York. It's from "Le Reve" at Wynn.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 22, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Las Vegas shows: A photo caption with the Movable Buffet column last Sunday incorrectly said that the photo was from Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas show "Zumanity" at New York, New York casino. It was from "Le Reve" at Wynn. Also, the "Le Reve" photo was incorrectly credited to T. Rossa for Cirque du Soleil. It should have said Tomasz Rossa for Wynn Las Vegas.

Cirque had always created sensual entertainment but had no real experience presenting adult topics in front of an audience. The company quickly began to remake the show, but "we did not want to lose the edginess, and we still wanted it to be surprising to people," Hadley said.

Visiting even a few weeks after its opening, it was possible to see that the majority of the show had been altered. Eventually toned down in some ways -- with fewer whips and more romance and also with more toplessness -- the show began to find its way, a process that continues to this day.

"It's a balance, and we are still trying to find it," Hadley said last week. " 'Zumanity' was such a departure for Cirque that it required a big fixation. We interviewed the audience, and we did surveys, and while that doesn't dictate the changes, it tells us the areas that need to be adjusted."

In January 2007, "Zumanity" adopted the subtitle "The Sensual Side of Cirque du Soleil," and what started out as a niche show targeted to a gay and sexually adventurous audience became more of a couples show, in a way unlike other topless shows in town, which were all chorus lines and showgirls. "Zumanity" still found its identity in the exploration of sexuality that was welcoming to gay and straight with a nod toward fetish -- but even as the most daring adult show on the Strip, at heart it also tries to appeal to broad-minded conventioneers from the Midwest.

The show has just completed its most significant batch of changes, precipitated in January of last year with the arrival of a new hostess -- Edie, Mistress of Sensuality (played in drag by Christopher Kenney).

"Since Edie arrived there have been big changes. Because of her coming in we rewrote a lot of things," Hadley said. "It changed the feel of the show."

Among the new acts is Felix Cane, an Australian pole dancer found via YouTube.

"Now," Hadley said, "it will hopefully settle for six months."

--

Imperfect all right

In April 2005, "Le Reve" at Wynn opened to even more brutal reviews than anything "Zumanity" faced. Almost perfectly described by its official subtitle, "A Small Collection of Imperfect Dreams," "Le Reve" was incoherent confusion. And what the audience could figure out was disturbing to them.

"Le Reve" will always be known as the show that dropped pregnant women (actresses in costumes) en masse into a 1.1.-million-gallon water tank. Bags of skulls and bones were raised out of the water at one point. The effect overall was a show, created by Cirque veterans led by Franco Dragone but not an actual Cirque production, that was far darker than anything offered by the troupe but still got pegged as a lesser Cirque show. The one advantage "Le Reve" had was a spectacular in-the-round theater.

One improvement that is immediately obvious to anyone seeing the show now is that, since "Le Reve" opened, the creators learned to make far better use of the capabilities that the high-tech theater offered. (Its backstage infrastructure of tanks, stagecraft and computers looks like the inside of a submarine.)

"Technically, the theater is a massive thing," said "Le Reve" artistic director Brian Burke. "Learning to do the show in the round was an extreme challenge. We are still learning about this technical marvel. We learned the theater while we were running the show. We learned to get from one thing to another faster. And I think we are now using every nook and cranny of the theater. We really push the limits."

Of course, there were revisions from the get-go as well, Burke said: "We wanted to make it brighter and more exciting and different from any other show on the Strip."

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