Ambitious blend of Beatles biography and lyrical interpretation shapes Cirque du Soleil's latest Las Vegas extravaganza, a mostly graceful and elegant marriage of movement and song that reinforces the greatness of the music created by the Beatles in the 1960s. "Love" limns Beatles music as no production, be it for stage or film, has ever done before.
An ambitious blend of Beatles biography and lyrical interpretation shapes Cirque du Soleil’s latest Las Vegas extravaganza, a mostly graceful and elegant marriage of movement and song that reinforces the greatness of the music created by the Beatles in the 1960s. An imaginatively assembled score of oft-altered Beatles recordings gives this Cirque project an element the company’s shows have never enjoyed: Truly great music used in a context that challenges not only the creators and performers, but the listeners as well. “Love” limns Beatles music as no production, be it for stage or film, has ever done before.Everything about “Love” is done in service to the Beatles; there’s not a single moment in which a visual element overrides the audio. It’s Cirque trying to find a new pace that responds to the music, meaning measured movements on ropes in one scene, zippy skateboarders in another. The rope climbers and bungee jumpers seen in Cirque shows are present; the balancing acts, clowns and aerial daredevils are not. The star is the Beatles, and the point is driven home when superbly edited footage of the Fab Four is shown during the closer, “All You Need Is Love.” The band’s producer George Martin and his son Giles have taken a “mash-up” approach to the Beatles music, overlapping rhythm tracks from one song onto the melody of another, squeezing incidental background noises from three or four tunes into the coda of another and even segueing from a demo of a song into its final version. The reworking of the tunes reveals a richness, depth and pliability that reinforces their place atop the rock ‘n’ roll canon. The joint music directors have gloriously reinvented — through added color and rhythm — “Within You Without You,” “Lady Madonna” and “I Am the Walrus,” making them viable singles to introduce the Beatles to a new generation. Using only sounds that John, Paul, George and Ringo recorded at EMI in the ’60s, the Martins have spectacularly refreshed staples of oldies radio. It’s the element MasterCard would label “priceless” in this $125 million production. With more than 6,000 speakers at the ready, sound designer Jonathan Deans has made the music majestic in spots and intimate in others, toying with the occasional fun gimmick — single words from “Come Together” emanate from the speaker in each audience member’s chair — but never getting carried away with the technical options. Music showers down from the ceiling — “A Day in the Life” is a powerful example — or swirls around the room and envelops the listener in a manner that no 5.1 system could at home. Presenting the show in the round — there’s probably not a bad seat in the house — helmer-writer Dominic Champagne has sets, characters, screens and props floating to center stage from every angle. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is the masterpiece of the production. Faceless characters in vivid costumes, a half-dozen song snippets dropped into the main tune and the combination of frivolity and acrobatics make it the evening’s most compelling vignette. At other times, to quote a Beatles lyric, “It’s all too much.” It’s a madhouse, for example, during “I Am the Walrus,” as the eye scrambles to find a focal point among the multitude of performers interacting with one another. Once the eye settles on a dancer or some kids in a bed, there’s an element of disappointment; yes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts can be lacking on their own. Champagne has fashioned a story that begins in darkness with the Beatles harmonizing a capella on “Because.” Rope climbers, at least seven of them, begin to ascend as a bandstand arises with Sgt. Pepper at its center and, in what seems like little more than a heartbeat, the scene is shifted to the final Beatles performance, on a London rooftop in 1969. Concert footage from “Let It Be” has been converted to silhouettes, and “Get Back” puts the show on an uptempo path until the psychedelic orchestration of “Glass Onion” drives the story back to the Fab Four’s childhood in war-ravaged Liverpool. (Cirque, whose best shows expand the imagination, has needlessly printed times and places on the screen during these segs, a bad move.) With the exception of a medley of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Drive My Car,” “What You’re Doing” and “The Word” that chronicles the heyday of Beatlemania, the boys’ story is over, fairly early in the show. Characters from songs — Dr. Robert, Sgt. Pepper and the underutilized quartet of comic Nowhere Men — dominate the action until “Love” goes into literal mode. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (with a fun aerial exercise), “Octopus’s Garden” and “Here Comes the Sun” are played as strict, visually attractive interpretations of the lyrics; “Lady Madonna,” featuring a pregnant lead dancer, is the lone tune that sidesteps the lyric to allow for some sweetly choreographed tap-dancing in rain boots. Tone of the piece then makes another dramatic shift, this time explaining the Beatles’ effect on the counterculture with a cops-and-protesters battle during “Revolution.” Well-choreographed, it makes absolute sense until the song segues into “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and the action doesn’t change. The political tone of the song, of course, is vastly different — a missed opportunity to bring in classic Cirque touches in costumes and ethnic dance. Multitude of costumes by Philippe Guillotel are colorful, whimsical and, when necessary, rooted in Beatles lore; Jean Rabasse’s sets range from the sublime to the outrageous and consistently impress; Yves Aucoin’s lighting is effective in mood-setting but less impressive in guiding the audience around the good-sized stage. Kudos to the creatives who made the white VW Beetle from the cover of “Abbey Road” a key part of the show — complete with “LMW/28IF” license plate. Toying with Beatles trivia like that could add some extra levity to the production. Evening closes with a sing-along, clap-along, feel-good trio of “Hey Jude,” the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper” and “All You Need Is Love.” It delivers the goods in the manner of the best Vegas shows: The senses are overloaded, spirits are high, and there’s an urgency to spread the word. A version of this review first ran in Daily Variety on June 30, 2006.