'Believe' teams celeb with show for first time

Cirque du Soleil has embraced acrobats and arrow throwers, clowns and contortionists, jigglers and jugglers, divers and daredevils. But never celebrity headliners.

Even as performers across the globe have tried desperately to snag a role in the so-called Cadillac of circuses with half the Las Vegas Strip in its pocket, the circus world has always known the trade-off: At Cirque du Soleil, the show is the star. Not your individual act.

There are sound reasons. Cirque’s incomparable Vegas portfolio includes shows like “O” that have run, literally, for decades. With no one above the title, there is no one to worry about replacing, and the product never gets diluted. Furthermore, Cirque’s singular reputation is based on constantly reinvented, and shrewdly elusive, concepts that play to virtually every demographic by excluding none of them. Stars aren’t so flexible. And they don’t usually like doing two shows a night.

But at the Luxor Hotel on Halloween, that’s all about to change, as Cirque teams up with Criss Angel for the Montreal-based company’s first celebrity-driven show. “Criss Angel Believe” is billed as a fusion of Cirque and magic, and as a trip deep inside the TV magician’s head.

Daniel Lamarre, Cirque’s president and chief executive officer, says that the first Cirque show with a star came about because Cirque had long wanted to dip its creative toe into a new realm and, given the personality-based structure of a notoriously secretive field, that ambitionrequired teaming up with an established magician.

“We’ve done circus and cabaret and other things. But we really wanted to get into magic and we needed a partner,” Lamarre says, pointing out that Cirque already has plenty of experience with external brands and properties. “We worked with a very strong brand on ‘Love,’” he says of the show at the Mirage Hotel wherein tapes of Beatles recording sessions become the soundtrack for Cirque’s typically ebullient visual landscape. “It would have been much easier for us to do a traditional musical there, but we wanted to do something completely different.”

Still, none of the Beatles is onstage live every night at the Mirage, as Criss Angel will be at the Luxor.

No Criss Angel on a given night, no show.

“We have a really good contract,” says Lamarre, lightly. “And a really good insurance policy.”

Matching sensibilities

You could argue that “Criss Angel Believe” isn’t the first fusion of top-drawer Vegas production show and headliner act. For the debut of the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2005, ex-Cirque director Franco Dragone fashioned a visual spectacular around pop star Celine Dion. But while the show was a great success, the fusion of star and the Dragone conceptual vision proved challenging — in some ways, the rest of the show virtually had to stop for Dion to talk to her audience and sing her catalog of hits, as she was expected to do. And if you weren’t a fan of Dion, you didn’t come to the show.

Mike Weatherford, entertainment columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and a longtime observer of the Strip scene, also sees similarities between the new Criss Angel venture and the famous Siegfried & Roy Mirage illusion-spectacular that was shuttered after Roy was mauled by one of his beloved white tigers.

“Steve Wynn was frustrated that he couldn’t get headline acts like Michael Jackson to commit for long runs,” Weatherford says. “So he decided he’d make his own stars. And that’s what he did with Siegfried & Roy.”

Indeed he did. But neither show is a precise parallel to this fall’s highest-profile new Vegas show. Lamarre says that “Criss Angel Believe” will much more fully integrate its star in the overall aesthetic. But at the same time, it’s the Cirque name that will draw most of the international crowd.

Celebrity awareness

Assuming the show is a success — and Cirque is not known for its failures — “Criss Angel Believe” will surely raise the profile of the performer in the title.

Lamarre argues, though, that Angel is already a star outside of Vegas due to his TV exposure and that the real test for the show is not about celebrity awareness but whether it can take the genre of the Vegas magician in a completely different direction by fusing it with the Cirque aesthetic.

“Very intelligently, Cirque always makes sure that everything they do has a unique twist,” says Scott Zeiger, co-CEO of Base Entertainment, which has extensive interests in Vegas entertainment, including the high-tech version of “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Venetian Hotel.

Base Entertainment is also venturing into a new area in coming months, joining with Broadway choreographer Jerry Mitchell on a burlesque-oriented attraction that will have “an eight-figure budget,” says Zeiger.

Meanwhile, Cirque is busy trying to redefine magic from its own point of view.

“You will see things done with magic here that have never been done before,” says Lamarre. “This is a completely new direction.”

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