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Critical Divide: Are out-of-town reviewers blinded by the lights?

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Viva Elvis
Photo: Julie Aucoin/Cirque du Soleil

One week before Viva Elvis "officially" opened, Time magazine's Richard Corliss wrote the most effervescent review of the new show that Cirque du Soleil could have ever prayed or paid for.

"They've concocted an experience that's both symphonic and in every way fantastic," Corliss gushed in a line destined to be bathed in exclamation points and emblazoned on advertisements and probably the marquee for the show for years to come.

Corliss' commentary came out long before Cirque's requested embargo on reviews; those of us who went to see it for reporting purposes prior to the February 19 opening were asked not to judge because it was still a work in progress even though Aria and Cirque were happily taking good money from patrons. Alas, as the Time writer's piece was so uniformly gleeful and full of absurd smiley faces like "no tribute show can touch this one in its level of sophistication and its power of evocation," I don't imagine anybody from Montreal complained.

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The Details
Viva Elvis
Show times at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., dark Wednesdays
Aria at CityCenter, 590-7757
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As a history piece, Cirque du Soleil's Viva Elvis bears some explanation (2/20/10)

Here in Vegas, however, those of us who keep tabs on all things Vegas and Cirque were flabbergasted. Most had endured the dreadful 15-minute preview staged for journalists in December and some had a chance to see the show in improved form in the weeks preceding the big debut. But while there was plenty of chatter about how the show had gotten better, the notion that it was in the league that Corliss claimed was baffling.

And yet after the show's bow, the critical divide grew even more pronounced. That is, local reviewers were highly critical and out-of-town critics could not have been more thrilled.

It forced the question: Why? This was the very first time in my memory that I can recall such radically different takes from two populations of reviewers on a Vegas production. When Le Reve and Criss Angel Believe opened, the critical response everywhere was unanimous: They sucked. Anyone and everyone who came into even casual contact with those disasters went forth to warn people in the sternest of language that these were productions unworthy of a tourist's precious time or money. Likewise, when a show was an obvious masterpiece—The Beatles Love and Garth Brooks spring to mind—everybody everywhere seemed to get that, too.

There is only one conclusion: When it comes to Vegas and Elvis, the prejudice toward stereotype and mockery and the expectations of banal schlock are so intense that anything even remotely elevated seemed to the out-of-towners like brilliance incarnate.

I know I spend plenty of space in these columns warning other Las Vegans not to be so thin-skinned and paranoid. In the case of Viva Elvis, however, the differences in Vegas perception and Vegas reality are clearly spelled out and ought to feel insulting.

First, let's establish whose views are more informed. The local critics who took the measure of Viva Elvis have all seen most shows on the Strip and more than likely all seven Cirque productions. By contrast, two of the most loving appraisers of this show—Corliss and Hollywood Reporter scribe Erik Pedersen—have, so far as I can tell from Web searches, no history of having ever rendered a review of any Vegas show before. (Corliss is primarily known as a film reviewer. In that gig, no less than Stephen King wrote in 2004 that he was one of several once-great critics who "seem to have gone remarkably soft—not to say softhearted and sometimes softheaded—in their old age.")

Viva Elvis

A third Viva Elvis cheerleader, Pat Donnelly, has covered Cirque for the Montreal Gazette for 25 years and, in all the coverage I found on the company's hometown paper, has seldom if ever written a single harsh word about Cirque.

So let's look first at what the in-town smarties had to say. "The flaw of this show, the missed opportunity, is that something so stylish is so insubstantial," Joe Brown lamented in the Las Vegas Weekly. Freelancer Eric Gladstone, on his Orbitz.com blog, called the show "an oddly disjointed, sloppy set of postcards caricaturing episodes of The King's life." Dave McKee, for Las Vegas CityLife, termed it "a noisy, incoherent mess" and the king of Vegas reviewers, Mike Weatherford of the Review-Journal, gave it a lukewarm B and wondered about the show's ambitions: "Isn't it supposed to aim just a bit higher?"

There were specific problems cited, too. In various spots among these pieces, Cirque is taken to task for unimaginative theater architecture, an inept sound system and awkward bench-like seats that have no arm rests. Specific sequences in the show were attacked, and uniformly so. A scene where a group of superhero-clad men bounce on trampolines was "just long, shapeless and ultimately pointless," McKee griped. The Las Vegas Sun's John Katsilometes, like his brethren, baffled over a fiery rope segment, asking, "When we think of Elvis, is a cowpoke spinning a flaming lasso something that springs to mind?"

The summary of judgment was: Viva Elvis is a middling show with entertaining sequences but with an overall impact that is dissonant and meaningless.

Our out-of-town friends, however, think dissonant and meaningless is how Vegas shows are supposed to be, especially ones involving Elvis. Pedersen pretty much admitted as much by declaring Viva Elvis to be superior to Love, an idiotic assertion if ever there was one. Pedersen noted that "there's a somber side to Love that Elvis never allows. … It's less 'serious' and more playful." That Love is obviously the more artistic, deliberative, immersive and thoughtful effort is actually, to Pedersen's mind, to its detriment.

Corliss is so sold that he even raved that the aforementioned trampoline segment is "an ecstatic amusement-park bit with high-bouncing superheroes." Donnelly, who quite strangely suggested there were two places in the show that brought her to tears (?!?), declared: "This isn't just a show, it's a glorious celebration of the life of the king of rock 'n' roll. … Cirque has once again synthesized multiple art forms into a wondrously distinct creation."

All people are entitled to their opinions, to be sure. But the dramatic disconnect between what Corliss, Donnelly and Pedersen saw and thought and what the credible critics in Vegas saw and thought is hard to reconcile.

The only conclusion I can reach is that they just don't know. They just don't know that a great Vegas show can be over-the-top, eye-popping and still make sense. That throwing in a potpourri of Vegas-related clichés—flying stripper poles!—is not how we necessarily roll anymore. That Garth Brooks playing the guitar and singing by himself on stage may just be the next generation of Vegas entertainment, not Cirque and certainly not Elvis cheese.

Sadly, tourists will believe Corliss and Pedersen and, I suppose, Donnelly if Cirque opts to include their No. 1 fan in their made-for-advertising rave quotes.

They shouldn't, though, because Weatherford, Brown, Katsilometes, McKee and Gladstone have something the others don't: Perspective, context and a belief that only great theater— not great VEGAS theater, but great theater—deserves to be honored with the compliment of great reviews.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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