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Cirque du Soleil bets on ‘Zarkana’ to bring back the magic

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Founders say it’s a mistake to refer to Zarkana as a more elaborate sampler platter of what we’ve already seen from Cirque. But it sure looks like “Cirque at its Cirquest.”

The lead character in Zarkana is a tortured magician named Zark. The honorable if luckless illusionist is trapped in an abandoned theater, having lost the love of his life and his gift of magic. Begging to the beyond for the return of both, Zark is plunged into a bizarre, arcane universe replete with surreal sights and echoing sounds. The name Zarkana comes from a blend of those two words—bizarre and arcane.

The Details

Zarkana
7 and 9:30 p.m., $69-$180, Aria

In a broader sense, there’s a different sort of return-to-magic effort being made here. Having lost its way with an attempt to merge acrobatic dexterity with Elvis Presley, Cirque is hauling Zarkana into a familiar theater, summoning the tried-and-true for another go at Aria.

Zarkana has been showcased in three dissimilar cities and succeeded in each. It has drawn 4,000-5,000 fans per show at the venerable Radio City Music Hall in New York, the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow and Madrid Arena in Spain. Nearly 1 million theater-goers have purchased tickets to see it before it has played for a single night in Las Vegas. So was Zarkana moved to Aria because the show has the highest likelihood of success of any Cirque production playing anywhere in the world? In a word, “Yep,” says Daniel Lamarre, Cirque’s president and CEO. It’s the closest thing Cirque has to a sure bet, and that’s a rarity in Las Vegas.

Zarkana

At a moment when maximizing success is paramount, Zarkana is Cirque at its Cirquest: A dependably and deliberately amped-up, greatest-hits package uniformly representative of the artistry that sells about 9,000 tickets a night in Vegas. The show opened November 1 in the old Viva Elvis Theater, a grand and beautiful venue that, nonetheless, stands as the site of the only Cirque show to ever close on the Strip.

It was a staggering outcome, given that Cirque was undefeated after six of its shows opened on the Strip, beginning with Mystère at Treasure Island in 1993.

Lamarre talks of Zarkana being a “sure thing” in Vegas, but Viva Elvis also seemed like a lock in the weeks before its February 2010 opening. The show was linked to the enormous popularity of Elvis Presley, and the production was formally endorsed by Elvis Presley Enterprises in a unique creative partnership with Cirque. Priscilla Presley herself contributed ideas during rehearsals and in the months after the show opened.

But critics—and many audience members—complained that Viva Elvis lacked focus, unsure if it wanted to be a more traditional Cirque experience steeped in dazzling acrobatics and inventive acts, or a series of dance numbers set to Elvis songs, designed to tell the Presley story through music and vintage film clips.

This philosophical tug-of-war was a constant during the Viva Elvis run, and a year after it opened, Cirque officials announced the show would go dark for a significant retooling that would have commenced in January 2012. But before the overhaul could begin, in November 2011, MGM Resorts asked Cirque to close Viva Elvis by the end of 2012. August 31 marked the show’s final performance.

Lamarre and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte were aware that Viva Elvis didn’t possess the momentum it needed to survive in Las Vegas. Reports of half-filled audiences wound around town, and the two Cirque overlords began exploring options. There were two courses to take: Move an existing show into Aria, or build a new production from the ground up. The latter option offered the sort of risk Cirque was uninterested in revisiting. It would take at least two years to build a new production in Vegas, and that show would have no track record whatsoever.

Speculation for what would replace Viva Elvis centered on two shows: One was Zed, which closed at Tokyo Disney Resort last December, a victim of the economic downturn caused by the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan’s coastline in March 2011. The other was Zarkana.

In the fall of 2011, Laliberte and Lamarre attended a performance of Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall. They had already been questioning the viability of Viva Elvis, noting that CityCenter’s clientele felt closer to the types of audiences buying tickets to Zarkana in New York.

“The more we were looking to the crowds that were attending Zarkana, the more we were seeing a demographic,” Lamarre says. “It was a young demographic that was quite similar to the one we were seeing at Aria.”

Soon, Cirque officials invited CityCenter executive Bobby Baldwin to attend the show in New York. Baldwin liked it, and Zarkana became the favorite among executives representing Cirque and MGM Resorts.

Lamarre remembers seeing Zarkana with Laliberte and having the same realization. “We were kind of looking at each other and saying, ‘This will be the perfect show for CityCenter.’”

In terms of pure acrobatic artistry, Zarkana is more advanced than any of Cirque’s other productions in Las Vegas. The original version cost $55 million—a price tag that only covers the show itself, not the construction of a theater, and that makes Zarkana the biggest Cirque show. Ever.

The scenery and activity splayed across the stage are so visually dynamic you often don’t know where to focus. Giant spiderwebs flank the set. Three hand-sculpted arches tower over the performers: one populated by dozens of slithering and pulsating snakes; another formed from a plant creature with arms extending more than 30 feet; and the third depicting a woman and the scientist whose experiments unintentionally pickled her. Inside the set, performers mimic the action onstage, giving it the appearance of human wallpaper.

The acts are typical of Cirque, defying common imagination and even the laws of physics and gravity. A trio of acrobats balance on high-rising ladders. Russian bar performers do somersaults and twists in midair. Wire artists skip across a tightrope, fire spewing from their mouths, and a tap-dancing juggler tosses tennis balls against set pieces and the stage. Fifteen people create human pyramids and perform aerial crossovers. An artist works atop a light table to tell a story through designs in blue sand. And of course, a Cirque show isn’t complete without a pair of clowns. In Zarkana, one of these costumed comics is fired from a cannon, soaring over the audience.

The show has been cut from its original version, tightened here and there and rid of its 15-minute intermission. As it has evolved, English has been supplanted by a form of “Cirquespeak,” a language that sounds something like Italian mixed with Russian, Spanish, French and, perhaps, Pig Latin.

Led by the red-caped Zark (portrayed by Paul Bisson, who bears a somewhat unnerving resemblance to Laliberte), the songs are all performed in this unspecific language. It evokes Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravas character from Taxi, who spoke in some unrecognized Slavic language, where “Ibi-da” was known to be both a greeting and affirmation.

Cirquespeak is actually used in other Cirque shows (by the baby character in Mystère and by the creatures in the wings at ), but not to the degree it is employed in Zarkana. “The rhythm of the melody of the words finishing by the same sound makes something,” says Bisson, who previously portrayed Quasimodo in Notre Dame de Paris when it opened at Paris Las Vegas in 1999. “You don’t understand what people are saying onstage,” he continues, “but your ears hear something and you go, ‘Oh, okay.’ Like an instrument. It’s cool because the audience can tell its own story in our show.”

But what separates Zarkana from the six other Cirque productions in Vegas is its musical score. The show rocks, its music written by Elton John prodigy Nick Littlemore, and the music has a bite and edge absent in other Cirque shows featuring live music on the Strip (discounting the distinctive Beatles soundscape in Love, which stands alone). Littlemore is famous for his work in the Australian rock band Empire of the Sun, and he also remixed John’s songs for Good Morning to the Night.

“This is the most rock show of Cirque,” says Zarkana writer and director François Girard. “It is meant to be loud … It is music, wall to wall.”

The music matches the ominous tenor of the story itself. The show is the darkest of the Cirque productions, with the lead character often singing in apparent anguish.

“The way Guy and I feel about it, we see it as a rock opera,” Lamarre says. “The music is very, very important. I have to admit to you that the discovery we have had in bringing Zarkana into that theater is that the songs and the music are going to have greater importance in that show than any other show we have in Las Vegas.”

Lamarre says it’s a mistake to refer to Zarkana as a more elaborate sampler platter of what we’ve already seen from Cirque.

“Whenever we are bringing new content into Las Vegas, we have to convince ourselves that this content is distinctive from anything else we have on the Strip,” he says. “Having said that, no one can deny that, with the more shows we bring there, there might be a cannibalization possible. So we have a huge synergy in promotion and are promoting more and more all of our shows together.”

The overarching sense is that Cirque has done all it can to maximize success at Aria—and avoid another Viva Elvis experience.

“The luxury we have right now is, we know this show is good. Every time you open a new show, there is a lot of anxiety. Will it be great? Will people enjoy this show?” Lamarre says. “We know this show is working. It has already been successful. It is the first time we have experienced that in Las Vegas.”

What if the unspeakable were to happen? What if the show does not capture audiences at Aria as it has in New York, Madrid and Moscow?

“If, for whatever reason, it wouldn’t work, nobody should blame the content of the show,” Lamarre says. “We know the content of the show is working.”

The reasoning is obvious: if the show doesn’t work here, it will be for other reasons. Maybe those reasons will be bizarre and arcane, but they won’t be Zarkana.

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