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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2007

Theater is alive and well in Las Vegas

A character in KA, a Cirque de Soleil production at the MGM
Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. A character in KA, a Cirque de Soleil production at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS The new Broadway, the pundits were calling it. A revolution in stagecraft. It made the old Broadway look dead, they said. It was the future. It was now.

This sounded like an oxymoron theater in Las Vegas? What theater? How could theater survive in the glare of the slots, in Sin City, the land of skin and bling?

So the American Theatre Critics Association decided to hold its annual conference in Las Vegas and see for itself. And what we first-time visitors found is indeed astonishing.

First, there s the city itself, or rather the Strip, an Emerald City or Xanadu plopped down on the desert, each palace complex gaudier and more improbable than the next. It s an entertainment mecca in a state of constant, expensive reinvention, with giant construction projects so thick that they joke the state bird of Nevada must be the crane.

Then there are those individual palaces, called resorts, each one a complex of casino, hotel, restaurants, decorative lake or forest and extensive shopping mall (chief ware: jewelry), all whipped into a frenzy of architectural frivolity and salted with unique attractions. These last can be theme parks, zoos or dolphin shows, but mainly (we re getting there) what can only be called theaters huge, purpose-built rooms costing $35 million and up, each specifically designed for a specific show.

KA, the towering parapet declares. Love. O. Le Reve. Vegas specializes in brief, enigmatic titles, really more like brand names, the better to astound and entice. But some titles have a more familiar sound: Spamalot. The Producers. Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular. And some herald performers either already known in the other 49 states, or not: Penn & Teller. Danny Gans.

Those are the three worlds of theater in Vegas that I sampled on a six-day visit, 12 shows in all.

The enigmatic titles belong to the first world, what s most distinctive and mind-boggling about Vegas entertainment, the unexpected kingdom of Cirque du Soleil. Cirque is a Montreal-based juggernaut that blends ancient European circus arts (aerialists, strong men, jugglers, contortionists, clowns) with new-age music and visual spectacle, knitted together with a kind of self-conscious artistic French purity that you d expect to be at odds with this kingdom of mammon.

Cirque is big not as big among entertainment empires as Disney, but big, with 3,000 employees worldwide. The traveling tent shows we ve seen in Pittsburgh Varekai and Quidam (others on tour are Dralion, Allegria, Corteo and Cirque 2007, which suggests that even Cirque is running out of titles) give a good taste of its performing skills and music-cum-spectacle style, but only a hint of the scope and technological sophistication of these sit-down Vegas extravaganzas. With each in a building designed for it alone, it can expand to find the boundaries of its own imagination and daring.

That s the genius of the New Vegas. No matter what its roots in crass hucksterism and the Bugsy Siegel mob, it has generated fortunes, both individual and corporate, that are willing to take chances on entertainment, even when it calls itself art. As Chris Jones said a few years back in a seminal Chicago Tribune article heralding Vegas as the successor to Broadway, these moneymen have the virtue of their defect. Once they decide to hire a creative force like Cirque (not that much is like Cirque), they pony up whatever s needed and get out of the way.

That s unlike Broadway, where the producers consider themselves collaborators, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. They fight to keep investments modest, by Vegas standards. That s because of another major difference, real estate: Broadway theaters are relative relics, charming but constricted. You couldn t fit a full Cirque show in any one of them, and so far Cirque has not been able to solve the Byzantine political maze that might lead to its own Manhattan home. (But Cirque will debut a Christmas show at Madison Square Garden this fall. And it also has a show, La Nouba, at Disney in Orlando, Fla.)

These Vegas entertainment palaces combine the best of the new movie stadiums with full wrap-around scenery and whatever lakes, platforms, sound systems, hydraulics or endless airspace the creators require. For the necessary flow of investment capital, look to those casinos. The money is there because each show is designed to run for years, maybe decades, fed by the constant flood of the tourists that are Vegas oxygen.

Much of this is also true of the second large category of Vegas shows, the Broadway transfers, both the recognizable musical spectacles with a story, like The Phantom of the Opera and Monty Python s Spamalot, and the non-story entertainments, like Stomp and Blue Man Group. Like all the other Vegas shows, these are Vegasized up in spectacle and down to 90 minutes, which the local potentates must think is the longest an audience (a) wants to sit in one place or (b) should be allowed to absent itself from the gaming.

Call them Broadway-lite. Many are doing well. But whereas no Cirque show has yet closed the oldest, Mystere, began in 1993 some Broadway transfers have. Avenue Q, which gave Vegas a post-Broadway exclusive, closed quickly, to the disappointment of Vegas but the relief of the national post-Broadway touring circuit. The easy post-mortem judgment was: Who wants to see sex and puppets in a city where nudity is already available in many forms, perhaps even at your hotel pool? But the short run of Hairspray was more disappointing, since it seemed the right kind of silliness for Vegas.

Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular suggests one rule: Broadway can make it in Vegas, but only if it s re-branded a third dimension of Vegasizing. The Vegas Phantom is shortened and heightened, shrunken and enlarged. The theater wraps you on three sides with the opulence of the Paris opera house and a bigger chandelier plummets toward earth and generates real screams, but it still comes in at 90 minutes, plus a scream or two.

It may well be that, while Broadway can generate shows that (repackaged) succeed in Vegas, the Broadway brand is itself a mixed blessing. In the real world I live in, Broadway often relates to serious theater as glitz does to substance. But Vegas is already glitz. So there, Broadway carries intimations of elitism. After all, the crowds that flood to Vegas are mainly people who don t watch the Tony Awards. What does Broadway mean to them, other than that old city at the other end of the continent?

A test of whether Vegas can compete with Broadway on its own turf, not just in Manhattan but elsewhere, is whether it can generate shows that will travel. Such possibilities would fall into the third category of Vegas theater, shows locally generated. That includes the solo acts, for which Vegas often grows or at least promotes its own names (Gans), and the old-style Vegas showgirl revues.

None of these is designed to travel. But I did see a Vegas original that might be a precursor of show-biz export: Just Another Man. A biographical musical by, about and starring popular Vegas entertainer Clint Holmes, it has every intention of going eventually to London or Broadway. This may not be the show that turns the trick, but its existence is a reminder that Vegas is a fast-growing city of more than 2 million inhabitants, with a small but growing off-Strip theater culture that I never really saw on this visit but which is said to have promise.

So is Vegas the new Broadway? No, of course not. But thanks to its unlikely alliance with Cirque, it s a vibrant, well-financed alternative to Broadway, a place you need to visit to see the new directions (and technology) that the Barnums of entertainment have devised.

Look ahead and imagine Vegas future, beyond the next wave of spectaculars. It s a city of performers with little to do when not on-stage. Every other city with big established theaters and a performing pool has developed an alternative theater scene out of which experiment and creation arise. Top down isn t the only creative model. Why should Vegas be different?

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson(at)post-gazette.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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