Cirque de Soleil rethinks the franchise

Show expands with 'Criss Angel,' Elvis tribute

Anyone who thinks they know the kind of people who attend a Cirque du Soleil show — old enough to be affluent, arty enough to embrace risk, highly influenced by critics and artistic tastemakers — should spend time in line at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. “Criss Angel: Believe” is a different kind of Cirque show for a different kind of crowd.

The lobby is dark and the grungy ambience is closer to blue-collar rock club than circus chic. You pass through a metal detector. The crowd is young and edgy. Goth attire is pervasive. And even before the show starts, the audience is chanting the name of its star, whom they know from his five seasons of “Criss Angel: Mindfreak” on the A&E network.

Cirque’s dominance of the Las Vegas entertainment scene is an old story. Incredibly, none of the shows has closed; in fact, “Mystere,” the oldest production, has now been playing for 16 years, and Cirque and Phil Ruffin, the new owner of the Treasure Island Hotel, just signed an additional five-year contract extension that should ensure “Mystere” achieves legal drinking age.

And thus in an economic downtown, the ever-savvy Cirque has figured out how to add to its Vegas slate without cannibalizing its existing high-end offerings like “O” and “Ka.” In large part, it has achieved the near impossible by creating shows that extend its brand into fresh demographics. And that’s the new story about Cirque’s Vegas strategy. “The Criss Angel show,” says Jerry Nadal, Cirque’s senior veep for resident shows, “has brought us a whole new audience.”

“Criss Angel: Believe” broke more seemingly inviolate Cirque rules than any show in the history of the Montreal entertainment juggernaut. It is dominated by magic, not circus disciplines. It is full of conversation, not experimental music with less-then-literal lyrics. And it is toplined by a bonafide TV star — something that Cirque has avoided throughout its history to date. Without Criss Angel present in the middle of the stage, there’s no show. These fans aren’t here for the clowns or the acrobats. They’re here for the bad-boy illusionist with more street cred than any of his peers.

It’s fair to say that “Criss Angel: Believe” got the worst opening-night reviews of any of Cirque’s Vegas extravaganzas, almost all of which have been critics’ darlings. Nadal says revisions are in the works. But business at the show has stayed demonstrably strong. That’s partly because both Criss Angel and Cirque are powerful brands with dedicated fans. But this show also gives its fans what they want: an edgy, seemingly slightly dangerous experience that pushes the envelope but doesn’t take them off into the arty clouds. Criss Angel, they know, would never let that happen. He’s a party animal and this is a show marketed to and patronized by a down-to-earth, party-loving crowd.

When Cirque opens its latest show — the much-anticipated tribute to Elvis Presley — in January, the company is perfectly happy to let the late, Vegas-loving rock icon have star billing. Again, that’s a relatively new strategy, one that began to emerge with “Love,” Cirque’s very successful Beatles show at the Mirage Hotel.

“In the case of ‘Love,’ ” Nadal says, “we know that many of the people coming through our door are coming in for the music aspect of the show. We expect that people will come to the Elvis show because they love Elvis.”

Cirque has a lot riding on the new attraction, which will bow in the 1,800-seat Aria Theater, inside the controversial CityCenter complex that is being developed by MGM Mirage as an upscale “city-within-a-city.” The collection of hotels and condominiums proved difficult to finance and complete in the teeth of the recession.

The newest yet-to-be-titled show, directed by Vincent Paterson, will feature the famous Elvis catalog of songs, re-orchestrated and sung by a group of live female vocalists and a live band. Cirque has access to the old master tapes and has been able to isolate Elvis’ voice. “The only male voice you’ll hear in the show,” says Nadal, “will be that of Elvis.”

Current plans call for a mostly biographical structure, involving appearances by characters based on Col. Tom Parker and Priscilla Presley and divided into the various sections of the King’s life. This is a fully approved affair by the Elvis camp, so don’t expect much of the man’s famous dark side. “This is a tribute to Elvis’ life,” Nadal says, “so we’re not going to go there. We’re focused on his contributions to the entertainment world.”

While Cirque will doubtless find a way to put its own unique stamp on that most familiar of lives, the show is certainly being developed for Elvis fans — who are, of course, mostly different folks from Criss Angel fans. And who may or may not want to see a circus. All of that is fine with Cirque du Soleil, which will then have seven shows running in Las Vegas, meaning that 120,000 tickets a week will need to be sold. And that means a lot of different theatrical strokes for the different folks headed to the desert.