By ANNE BURKE, Los Angeles Times Special Sections WriterIf you have lost sight of why Elvis Presley is the still the king of rock 'n' roll, or are too young to have ever known in the first place, watch the opening sequence in Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis.”
The curtain drops and a circa-1950s Elvis — projected larger than life on the rounded dome of a gigantic Wurlitzer jukebox — breaks into “Well, it’s one for the money …” from “Blue Suede Shoes.” Shrieking girls in ponytails and pastel swing skirts swarm the stage and a live band picks up the music. After all these years, Elvis — his voice and face oozing sensuality and cocky swagger — is as hypnotic as ever.
“Viva Elvis,” which premiered Feb. 19 at a custom-built theater at CityCenter’s Aria Resort & Casino on the Strip, is Cirque’s long-awaited homage to the entertainer whose raw emotion, exuberance and sexually charged persona still thoroughly inhabit — even define — Las Vegas in a way that no one else has or likely ever will.
Following the runaway success of his 1968 comeback special on NBC, Elvis more or less settled down in Las Vegas for a long-term engagement at the International Hotel (later the Las Vegas Hilton).
During the next several years, Elvis played 837 shows in front of 2.5 million people. Every single performance sold out. He left in 1976, never to return, but Las Vegas was forever changed.
Though there are biographical notes to “Viva Elvis,” the show isn’t a retelling of Elvis’ life; his story is well known to most and if not, there are books and movies. In fact, there’s virtually no flesh-and-blood personification of Elvis at all. (The creators originally had in mind two Elvis actors — one young and one old — but discarded the idea out of fear that any attempt at imitation was doomed to fall short.)
Instead, “Viva Elvis” celebrates the king through a never-before-tried mélange of elements — Elvis’ own vocals isolated from master recordings, Cirque dancing and acrobatics, and the voices of female soloists and back-up singers. The only male singing voice in the show is that of Elvis.
“It’s not so much about bringing Elvis back to life — he never really went away,” said Armand Thomas, “Viva Elvis” creation director, “but about giving him his due and the fact that his music is as relevant today as it was then.”
“We are hoping when people leave the showroom at the end of the night,” added Stéphane Mongeau, the executive producer, “that they have felt Elvis, and seen him, and met him.”
There are 30-odd Elvis songs in “Viva Elvis” but the show draws from as many as 60 tracks, sometimes with snippets of just a few seconds. While Elvis’ voice stays true to the original, the arrangements are new, a reinterpretation of the king for the new millennium.
“We retain the essence of the original while creating something new that will make the hairs on the back of your neck (stand up),” Thomas said. “We’re creating an entirely new product, a new art form.”
Cirque shows — there are six others currently playing in Las Vegas — favor the abstract over the literal and this one is no exception. Some of the quasi-biographical scenes play off mostly forgotten parts of Elvis’ life, so even fans who think they know all there is to know about Elvis will likely leave the theater enlightened.
Early on in the show, two male acrobats clad in white T-shirts and blue jeans swing from a huge guitar suspended from the ceiling. One of the acrobats falls and the other climbs to the top. This symbolizes a little-known fact about Elvis’ life: He had a twin brother, Jesse, who died at birth.
The audience can expect the unexpected in the rearrangements. A singer with Aretha-worthy chops belts out a gospel version of “All Shook Up.” (Gospel was a key ingredient in Elvis’ well-known synthesis of musical styles.) Another female vocalist renders a Norah Jones-ish “One Night” as the male acrobats swing on the guitar. There are also duets and harmonies.
Throughout are still photographs and video clips from Elvis’ storied career. Some are playful — Elvis locking lips with an endless succession of screen sirens — others bittersweet — Elvis and Priscilla horsing around in happy times.
‘It’s not so much about bringing Elvis back to life — he never really went away.’ – Armand Thomas
“Viva Elvis” departs in many ways from traditional Cirque shows, especially for its use of a narrator, Col. Tom Parker (played here by an actor), Elvis’ famously Machiavellian manager. “I had to turn the hoses on them just to cool them off,” Parker tells the audience of the Elvis’ female fans.
Toward the end of the show, Col. Parker — a man not given to sentimental longing — looks straight at the audience and makes a heartfelt declaration: “I really miss that boy.”
Las Vegas does, too, but with “Viva Elvis,” perhaps a little less these days. 2
Two shows daily (except Wednesday and Thursday) 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Special dark days: March 17-25, May 11-13 and July 14-29 Additional performances: April 14, 7 and 9:30 p.m. and April 28, 6:30 and 9 p.m.
VIVA ELVIS Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. South $99, $125, $150 and $175 877.25.ELVIS or 702.590.7760 www.cirquedusoleil.com
EXPLORING THE ORIGINS OF ELVIS
HIGH FASHION FROM “KING CREOLE”
BELOW: CIRQUE’S INTERPRETATION OF ELVIS AND PRISCILLA’S 1967 LAS VEGAS WEDDING; CENTER: THE KING HIMSELF TAKES THE STAGE; FAR RIGHT: “BLUE SUEDE SHOES” KICKS OFF “VIVA ELVIS.”
A BRAND-NEW CIRQUE SHOW, “VIVA ELVIS,” HAS AUDIENCES ALL SHOOK UP
AERIAL ACROBATICS ARE COMPLEMENTED BY ENERGETIC DANCE NUMBERS.