Cirque du Soleil attempts to dabble in illusion and simultaneously deal with a pair of significant issues, death and marriage, in its least successful Las Vegas show to date. Criss Angel, a telegenic bad boy of magic, gets top billing, but his established skills are overshadowed by standard Cirque elements (a vaudeville quartet of clowns and a bizarre leitmotif that in this case involves rabbits) and an insistence that Angel perform in a speaking role. Never mind the bunnies, “Criss Angel Believe” is a dog.
Quite simply, “Believe” has no core. Until the Beatles came along, Cirque shows were star-free and ensemble-rich, and the demands placed on Angel force him to reach far beyond his role as conjurer. The illusions, though, are routine — would you believe doves and handkerchiefs? — and in short supply. The end result of the tricks is often apparent from the moment the illusion begins.
The Cirque bits are too often static as designers Angel and Serge Denoncourt awkwardly navigate a dream within a dream landscape, crisscrossing the imaginary with realism, a thoroughly foreign element for Cirque du Soleil.
The basic story — a dream/nightmare that occurs after he is rendered unconscious during a failed trick — is out of step with nearly every other Cirque show. It has its roots in “The Wizard of Oz,” but there’s no sense of hope or possibility here.
Beyond the frightening opening, two components are rather off-putting — video segments from Angel’s “Mindfreak” cable shows and ringmaster/motivational speaker monologues that are neither well-written nor well-delivered by Angel. He’s not much of a dancer, either: A breakdancing segment that might have been nicked from “Electric Boogaloo” in the ’80s should be the first part shelved.
Cable television has a bounty of characters like Angel, experts who strip gentility from their fields and present their craft on a level that has not been previously witnessed. “Mindfreak” is “Jackass” employing David Copperfield’s act with Anthony Bourdain as your host.
Angel loves to make himself disappear, often to escape danger, which plays quite well on television. On the stage, though, his transmigration is often used to move himself a few feet away from where he is standing. It can be dazzling — when its use is limited — but here it plays a bit too naturally; in Cirque shows, the audience expects to see things that cannot be reproduced at home, whether they be acrobatics or sleight of hand.
Cirque’s rich stagecraft is evidenced only in two back-to-back tableaux cast in various shades of green. First one positions Angel in an Alice-in-Wonderland dreamscape, a field of red poppies populated with spinning female dancers and aerialists in red bell-shaped dresses and exaggerated fezzes. Erica Serra’s music, shrill and overly beat-driven in parts but often cinematic and pleasant, marries disco with the sounds of Turkish instruments. It’s exotic eye and ear candy.
As if every moment of lightness needs a dark counterpoint, the seg gives way to a barren forest and elements of death. The devil threatens his bride and — this might be reading into it too much — Angel exorcises the demon from his torso before one of the evening’s most cohesive tricks: the transmogrification of a human into a leafless tree.
The back and forth between those tones could be an intriguing device for this show, which has been reworked for months and had its opening delayed several times. While it’s clear that Angel wanted to get some of his greatest hits into the act — being chainsawed in two, a stroll down a vertical wall of fabric — and Cirque wanted its quartet of Chaplin-esque clowns to provide levity, it remains baffling why rabbits are in so many scenes.
Yes, it’s a dream and he imagines the bunnies having their revenge on magicians. There’s a bloodied rabbit corpse that sits downstage too long in the early going and the rabbits tear a human limb from limb; these are the parts that make it an adults-only show but don’t play out in the end. Best rabbit bits — and they would work far better if they had no pre-story and just seemed random — are a dancing disembodied bunny head and a rabbit riding a burning unicycle across a tightrope.
“Believe” is booked for a reported 10 years, 10 shows a week. It has opened with pre-sales of $5.5 million, according to Cirque execs. At the end of the run, Angel will be 50 and it is highly likely some of the more physical aspects of the show will need altering. But before that time is reached, Cirque will need to decide on a focus and how to better frame a star with the troupe’s trademark movement.