Elvis hasn’t left the building, but his presence is only partly felt in “Viva Elvis.” While it peerlessly renders his songbook, the new Cirque du Soleil spectacular expends as much energy on Vegas cliches as on seriously honoring the man and his impact. Those content with a lounge tribute act blown up to showroom scale will likely be satisfied and then some, but to anyone craving a transcendent blend of music and circus artistry, the sumptuous Aria may seem like Heartbreak Hotel.
Helmer-scribe Vincent Paterson illustrates each career chapter — early gospel influences, Army service, Hollywood years, marriage to Priscilla — with numbers and an acrobatics/dance mix. No one stands in for the headliner, his spoken and sung samples integrated with film clips and live female soloists.
It all contrasts interestingly with “Love,” the other Cirque Strip tribute. The Beatles’ catalog is so varied as to inspire all manner of aerial and acrobatic work while reflecting the cosmic societal shifts of the band’s era. Moreover, the speaking voices of the Fab Four’s recording sessions bring them to life — even as flickering shadows — between numbers.
The King evidently had less to say for himself, so his showcase involves a little less conversation, a little more action (baby), mostly choreographic. This is the dancingest Cirque show in memory, if also the lightest on circus dazzle.
At the same time, the music’s relatively limited range is reflected in the movement credited to a corps of dance directors. Though an initial blast of activity accompanying “Blue Suede Shoes” was exciting even when an opening-night glitch required it be repeated, the dancing grows monotonous: same fresh-faced kids rushing in to shine it on; same athleticism, including backflips; same obvious “call me” flirting with audience members.
There’s no hint of the rock pioneer’s musical revolution in the face of a “Doggy in the Window”-dominated Hit Parade, except for some bland commentary from a pale shadow of Col. Tom Parker. Elvis is described as dangerous, but danger is nowhere (even the aerial work doesn’t seem that scary), and if dance changed over the course of his career, you wouldn’t know it here.
From time to time, the man meshes with circus. Twin acrobats swinging about a giant metal-framed guitar poignantly stand in for Elvis and stillborn twin Jesse on “One Night.” The King’s youthful dreams of comicbook heroism are acted out by six Spider-Men thrillingly propelled by trampolines to climb walls during “Got a Lot o’ Livin’ to Do.”
Your heart goes out to the young man during well-chosen footage of his military stint, eyes reflecting both patriotic pride and ambivalence about a potentially fatal career hiatus.
But an umbrella dance seems at odds with an interesting gospel arrangement of “All Shook Up.” Priscilla and Elvis’ romance is enacted in a lewd acrobatic hoop-dee-do (on replicas of the wedding rings) right out of Cirque’s kitschy “Zumanity.” The star’s sincere desire to become a serious actor, especially his respect for Westerns, is reduced to yee-haw prancing and a couple of skillful lasso artists against an immodest row of giant, Warhol-esque Elvis statues.
And having had Mark Fisher create a massive prison set for “Jailhouse Rock,” no one seems to have agreed on what to do with it. Is the chaos meant to be a dance number, an acrobatic demo, a riot? (It mainly seems a chance to top Gavin Lee’s upside-down “Mary Poppins” dance.)
Musical director Erich van Tourneau’s arrangements sizzle as performed by a first-rate onstage band, the new theater’s sound system offering pellucid lyric clarity and bass lines setting the seats a-buzzing. Elvis’ hits have probably never sounded better. It’s just the context that disappoints.
“Viva Elvis” predictably (and wisely) avoids the divorce, weight and drug problems and untimely death. But it’s equally predictable in proceeding toward the high-headdressed showgirls, jumpsuited impersonators and “Hound Dog.” While the music rouses, one regrets both the career opportunities fate and his handlers denied Elvis and the missing Cirque du Soleil creative leaps.