It seems I may have to eat my own words.
A few weeks back I took it upon myself to spend a few moments examining the evolution of Cirque du Soleil and relayed my thoughts to anyone who would listen… okay, who am I kidding – I went on a brief tirade… based on the reactions of some long-time fans who decided to “turn their backs” on the company following the debut of TOTEM (yet another touring show), of BANANA SHPEEL in New York City (and its subsequent flop), and the announced collaboration with Michael Jackson (another music-based show). The reason for the dissent was, of course, because Cirque du Soleil had stepped outside their creative core and was no longer the Cirque most remembered and enjoyed.
Although I spent a few moments then examining Cirque’s evolution, came to terms with the knowledge that every company, just like every person, must continue to evolve to remain fresh and relevant, and that while I may feel saddened by the fact that I may never again experience the Cirque of old (a.k.a. the “Dragone Era”), I was not going to turn my back on the company – not just then. Why? If TOTEM and BANANA SHPEEL had taught me anything it was to expect the unexpected; to enjoy the shows for what they were not for what I wished them to be.
Sage advice from a long-time fan of Cirque du Soleil, wouldn’t you say?
A lot has changed since I’ve written those words. Back then I hadn’t seen VIVA ELVIS.
I have now.
Sorry Cirque, but after taking in the 7:00pm performance on Friday, August 20th, I have to borrow a few of Elvis’ lyrics… I’ll try not to be cruel but one night with you got me all shook up…
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.
Viva ELVIS is billed as a harmonious fusion of dance, acrobatics and live music; a tribute to the life and music of Elvis Presley. Nostalgia, modernity and raw emotion provide the backdrop for his immortal voice and the exhilaration and beauty of his music.
Created in the image of The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll – powerful, sexy, whimsical, truly unique and larger than life – the show highlights an American icon who transformed popular music and whose image embodies the freedom, excitement and turbulence of his era.
Significant moments in his life – intimate, playful and grandiose – blend with the timeless songs that remain as relevant today as when they first hit the top of the charts. Viva ELVIS focuses on the essential humanity of the one superstar whose name will forever be linked with the history of Las Vegas and the entire world of entertainment – Elvis Presley – through the following scenes:
BLUE SUEDE SHOES
One of the seminal songs that propelled Elvis to fame, Blue Suede Shoes opens the show with raucous abandon, featuring a dynamic ensemble of 30 dancers and 24 acrobats boogying, bouncing and flying through the air. A giant jukebox adorns the stage until a giant blue suede shoe rolls on. The eight-piece band and four female singers energize a showcase filled with Elvis imagery, colorful graphics and vintage footage of euphoric fans.
DON’T BE CRUEL
This number pays tribute to Elvis’ fantastic recording career and the sheer volume of his work. Twenty-four dancers take the stage for the classic song, featuring glittering images of flying gold records on eight LED panels, and six enormous RCA and Sun gold records lowered from the rafters.
ONE NIGHT WITH YOU
An epic-sized guitar, a symbol of Elvis’ love of music and his larger-than-life persona, serves as an imaginary playground for Elvis and his twin brother Jesse Garon, who died at birth. The song is a duet between a female singer at a piano and Elvis himself.
ALL SHOOK UP
Gospel music was at the very core of Elvis’ artistry. This powerful rendition of an Elvis classic, performed by one of the singers in a rich setting of colorful stained glass imagery, lends the dance number a Southern revival feel.
Elvis loved singing gospel more than any other musical genre. In fact, each of his three Grammys was for a gospel recording. This euphoric number combines dance with acrobatics.
GOT A LOT OF LIVIN’ TO DO
Full of thrills and daring feats this is a trampoline number inspired by street acrobatics and Elvis’ fascination with comic books, amusement parks and superheroes. Seven acrobats in stylized superhero costumes defy gravity in a stunning cavalcade of synchronized jumps, leaps and bounces.
A ballad of love, sorrow and separation, Heartbreak Hotel features four dance couples – the men dressed as army officers and the women wearing airmail envelope dresses. They are torn between loyalty to country and their emotional ties to their loved ones.
LOVE ME TENDER
A duet sung by Elvis and a female singer is underscored by a montage of still photographs and newsreel footage of Elvis’ two years in the army.
RETURN TO SENDER
Boot camp as performance art – a large ensemble cast of dancers, acrobats and marching band musicians puts on a dizzying array of hip hop moves, and high-bar calisthenics. Backed by a gigantic American flag made of whimsical stars and stripes, the sharp, compelling movements are emblematic of precision, pride and patriotism – all highly distinctive characteristics of Elvis himself.
ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT
This aerial pas-de-deux features a soldier and his girlfriend in a dreamy ode to their love and devotion – and their efforts to stay together during his tour of duty by writing to each other.
Musicians gather around a campfire in a reference to the style and camaraderie of the ’68 Comeback Special, and perform a medley of songs on acoustic instruments while two cowboys spin their guns and twirl their lassos in a playful routine.
A cascade of movie clips pays homage to Elvis’ Hollywood career. The live band rocks the house and punctuates classic dialogue delivered by the King.
A young guy triumphantly shows off at a party by building a tower of eight chairs and topping it off with a one-arm handstand.
New Orleans sets the tone for this lusty rendition of the title song from one of Elvis’ best-loved films. It’s Reggae, it’s Calypso, it’s Cajun, and above all it is fun as a female singer is accompanied by Elvis in a visual feast of stop-action film clips and dance.
Jailhouse Rock marked the pinnacle of Elvis’ movie career. It’s also the centerpiece of Viva ELVIS. A dramatic, mysterious entrance gives way to a high-octane dance and acrobatic fusion performed to the pulsating beat of the familiar anthem. In a tribute to the original film sequence, the iconic prison set is dramatically updated in a number that flips the world upside down.
IT’S NOW OR NEVER
The sensuality of the tango and the sophistication of a lounge song connect with the audacity of an innovative pole performance featuring eight female performers and the four men they seduce.
CAN’T HELP FALLING IN LOVE
Home movies of Elvis and Priscilla’s courtship lead into footage of their marriage ceremony. A singer performs a duet with Elvis atop a replica of their wedding cake to accompany graceful ballet dancers and roller-skaters.
Two seven-foot hoops – scale replicas of Elvis and Priscilla’s engagement rings – descend from the grid for two couples to perform a sensual cerceaux act to a rocking arrangement of Love Me. A female singer and guitarist join the party for Don’t.
VIVA LAS VEGAS
Showgirls wearing colorful plumes parade down the central staircase of a spectacular stage set framed by two gold Elvis statues. All the other cast members are wearing shimmering reinterpretations of classic Elvis jumpsuits as a medley of songs pays tribute to the glitz and sparkle of Elvis’ Vegas years.
Suspicious Minds opens with a soulful riff and builds to a thunderous finish. A couple caught in a trap of passion and anger express their feelings for each other in an energetic acrobatic dance. Once the duo is reconciled, the set fills with performers emerging at the top of the staircase in fringed jumpsuits, recreating Elvis’ signature stage moves.
The entire cast brings the show to an unforgettable finale with a dynamic, modern celebration of the song that marked Elvis’ rise to fame.
One of the disappointments I had regarding the show was the lack of Elvis’s music.
“But wait a minute,” you say. “Isn’t this Elvis’s show?”
Well yes, and no.
What I was hoping for was something akin to THE BEATLES LOVE just down the street at The Mirage: a complete integration of inspirational or thought-provoking (a.k.a. psychedelic in the case of The Beatles) scenes that cleverly tied the landscape shown to us together with the band’s (or Elvis himself in this case) iconic music.
I didn’t think we’d be getting an entire live band…
In THE BEATLES LOVE, it’s the Beatles’ own music you hear piped across the multitude of speakers, only remixed slightly; in VIVA ELVIS, a live-band plays his music while a female singer (wait, not ELVIS?) belts out his tunes. Occasionally a track of Elvis’ vocals will accompany the singer, but it’s just not enough in our humble opinions.
We came to hear ELVIS!
Another “problem” I noticed was the show’s scale.
Although blurring the lines between scenery elements, acrobatic equipment and props in the show was a deliberate choice by designer Mark Fisher, it’s too much in our opinion.
The design of the Elvis Theater has a conventional proscenium layout reminiscent of an opera house. The stage is wide and the backstage area and wings are vast. They have to accommodate the large-scale set elements and the need for speed in changing scenes imposed by the rapid pace of the show. The sides and the rear of the stage are fixed areas while the center is composed of 16 platforms, separated into 12 sections which can rise to a height of ten feet. Depending on the scene, the platforms may at various times in the show support performers, singers, dancers or set elements. The widest platform measures 18 feet by 80 feet and is raised by four powerful motors 26 feet below the stage.
It’s humongous; most of the time the performers, singers, and musicians on it become lost in it or in what is going on around them.
A good example of this comes in the show’s trampoline piece – GOT A LOT OF LIVIN’ TO DO – the trampoline/wall piece covers the entirety of the stage and yet only 5 people perform on it (the press-release says seven, but I only got five in my performance). It swallowed the performers whole! There’s also just not much to the number. After numerous Fast-Tracks, Power-Tracks, and Trampoline-Walls presented in other Cirque du Soleil shows, I expected much, much more than jumping and diving between the sections.
It didn’t deliver.
In fact, I was instantly reminded of OVO’s Trampo-Wall routine – epic in scale (for a touring show) just grossly under skilled.
Another strong example occurred during the show’s chair-balancing skit – BOSSA NOVA. Here a young man builds a tower of eight chairs then does a hand-stand when he’s done. Trouble was: I didn’t even know the act was progressing until about half-way through! The visuals on the ever-moving LCD screens kept my attention firmly affixed on them rather than on what was actually occurring on stage.
This is a huge mistake, in my opinion. The screens should help enhance the mood (like they do in THE BEATLES LOVE) not become the main attractions themselves.
Furthermore, although I enjoyed the way the number was presented (the song married quite nicely to the action on stage), having seen balancing-on-chairs in a variety of forms (notably in Nouvelle Experience, La Nouba and Koozå), was it necessary to present another iteration of the number? And if so, wouldn’t it have been more prudent to increase the skill set? It was a plain old chair balancing routine…
Talk about a heartbreak hotel…
And don’t get me started on JAILHOUSE ROCK – who thought it would be a good idea to fill the entire stage with a jailhouse set piece then just march back and forth across it for minutes on end? Sure, the upside-down bit was interesting but in the end just showed there wasn’t much to do. Or ONE NIGHT WITH YOU – where a huge guitar piece descends from the rafters and two performers… climb over and around it? What? Where’s the performance? Where’s the Cirque? So wasteful. Or WESTERN SCENE – gun twirling and lassos… seriously? If I hadn’t seen lassos in ZED I would have laughed this number right off the stage — wait, I did… in ZED there was actually some presentation and mystique to it.
And what’s with the force-perspective statues of Elvis?
Be that as it may there was one bright-spot in the show for me – RETURN TO SENDER – a skillful gymnastics routine performed on high-bars set against an American Flag of boxer shorts. It had the skill, the whimsy and best of all, ELVIS himself singing his own song.
It just wasn’t enough to save the show.
* * *
In conclusion, I have nothing but the utmost respect for all the performers, musicians, stage personnel and creators that poured their heart and soul into bringing VIVA ELVIS to fruition.
The talent is there, unfortunately it’s just underutilized.
In the end VIVA ELVIS is not my cup of tea.
And much like ZUMANITY, it’s another side of Cirque du Soleil that I just can’t quite appreciate. No, I take that back. I can appreciate ZUMANITY for what it is (it’s just not the highlight of any trip to Las Vegas), and TOTEM and BANANA SHPEEL for what they try to be. I’m just not sure I can extend that thought to VIVA ELVIS.
I didn’t enjoy it. I couldn’t even take my own advice and enjoy it for what it was trying to be.
For the first time in a long time I was bored.
(KÀ’s performance the previous night notwithstanding – but that’s a story for another time)
I’m returning this one to sender; I have no plans to see VIVA ELVIS again.
So I’ll eat my words now and be on my way.
I am still curious about Hollywood 2011, Radio City 2011, and Dubai if that show ever sees the light of day; and, of course, what new touring productions may come out of Montreal in the near future. But my thoughts now can be summed up by the immortal words of Marlin the Fish:
“Good feelings gone.”
I am much more skeptical now. I have a suspicious mind.
I guess for now I’ll just keep swimming, just keep swimming…