Shows, themes mine icons of showbiz past

With new movies dying and superstar vehicles underperforming, I decided last week to visit dead people.

The biggest stars in Las Vegas are still Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, and the shows featuring their voices (and movie clips) are packing them in. Their success provides a forceful, if spooky, reminder about the power of the brand.

It’s as though Vegas was telling Hollywood: Why pay for Johnny Depp or Reese Witherspoon when you might digitally re-create James Dean or Fred Astaire?

Steve Wynn’s thriving new hotels seem obsessed with the Sinatra brand — a newly opened show called “Sinatra: Dance With Me” and a major restaurant (Italian, of course). Sinatra’s voice booms across the Wynn theater backgrounding Twyla Tharp dancers. Photos of Sinatra and Wynn decorate the walls.

I didn’t know Sinatra well but I knew him well enough so that I could hear his voice growling, “What the fuck am I getting out of this?” (The Wynn people wouldn’t disclose the deal.)

The megarich Cirque de Soleil organization (with seven shows in Vegas alone) is similarly mum about its deal with the Presley estate, but its hit “Viva Elvis” show at the Aria Casino represents the ultimate testament to corporate entertainment. There are no stars, no plot and no new songs but the stage, as with all Cirque shows, is so filled with acrobats and dancers doing diverse stunts that the audience doesn’t notice. The actor playing Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, is downright cheesy, the dancers look weary but the trampoline act is great (if irrelevant) and — take note, Julie Taymor — no one ever seems to fall off their wires or off the stage.

To be sure, the rest of Vegas has been having a tough time lately. The much heralded CityCenter is an $8.5 billion question mark and the $4 billion Fontainebleau is an empty shell that even Carl Icahn seems to have given up on completing any time soon. Billed as “the new Southwest,” the vast Mountain’s Edge condo city seems to be teetering on the edge and the $3.9 billion Cosmopolitan, the town’s newest hotel, is offering a room and $150 in food coupons to every cab driver in town in the hope of inducing them to steer tourists there.

Vegas’ showmen are fighting to stay current and optimistic (Kim Kardashian is the MC at Tao, so how current can you be?) but the old brands (and even some of the old hotels) still represent gold. There is a Beatles Show at Planet Hollywood as well as Love, a Cirque show about the Fab Four, at the Mirage. And, of course, Liberace is still ubiquitous, as is the Rat Pack, while some of the senior headliners (no names, please) look like they would be more comfortable in the wax museum.

To many of the younger visitors, however, Elvis and Sinatra are still the stars of the moment. And maybe there is a perverse lesson for Hollywood in that phenomenon.

peter.bart@variety.com

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