Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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Cirque du Soleil Anniversary Special

2014 marks the 30th anniversary of Cirque du Soleil, the French-Canadian circus and theater group that revolutionized Las Vegas entertainment. Although they didn't make their permanent mark in Sin City until 1993, the group got its start in 1984 in Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec with a show called simply "Cirque du Soleil" (meaning Circus of the Sun).

They grew rapidly and now have 19 shows all over the world and eight permanent productions in Las Vegas.

To say that Cirque changed things for the entertainment scene in Vegas is an understatement. Before they came along, entertainment in the city mostly fell into one of a handful of categories: showgirl extravaganzas, relics of decades past with the big feathered head dresses and topless beauties; magic shows like Siegfried & Roy and their imitators; and impersonator shows like Legends in Concert. It was all fun spectacle with very little substance.

When Cirque opened Mystère at Treasure Island in 1993, it was like an explosion of possibility, mixing gasp-inducing acrobatic, gymnastic, and aerialist acts with dreamy avant garde theater, proving that audiences wanted something entertaining but not necessarily mindless. People flocked to the show and it quickly spawned both sequels and imitators. In addition to the actual Cirque productions currently playing, shows like Absinthe, Le Rêve, and even Celine Dion's first run of shows entitled "A New Day" all owe a debt of gratitude to the Cirque ethos.

In honor of Cirque's 30th anniversary, let's take a look at the shows currently playing in Las Vegas. Some of them are stunning and some of them are merely okay but even the latter are a lot better than what Vegas used to think was good entertainment. Note that for the purposes of this round-up, I am omitting Criss Angel's Believe. It started at as a Cirque show, blending magic, theater, and dance but has since become mostly focused on Angel's illusions. Nothing wrong with that - it's actually a better show than it was in its original incarnation - but it's not really a Cirque show anymore.

Below are the seven true Cirque shows in order of what I think are importance.

Happy birthday, Cirque du Soleil.


Show Review: Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil

In the storm of tabloid headlines that dominated the later years of Michael Jackson's life and his untimely (if not terribly unexpected) death in 2009, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he was, undeniably, a musical and entertainment genius. There is a reason that his "Thriller" is the best-selling album of all time, with more than 45 million copies sold around the world. His impacts on pop music and pop culture are almost too big to comprehend and coming up with a proper showcase for all of it seemed impossible.

But Cirque du Soleil is good at impossible and they have constructed a show at Mandalay Bay that is both a fitting tribute to Jackson's musical legacy and a stunning piece of pop entertainment in its own right.

The theater has been redone from its "Lion King" and "Mamma Mia!" days to include massive video project walls flanking the stage and speakers built into the seat backs in front of you and in the headrests. The result is that you are virtually surrounded by sight and sound, immersed in the action that takes place on all sides and above.

There is a storyline of sorts that involves four young adults who are trying to rescue stolen bits of Jackson's iconic costumes - the rhinestone studded glove, the black fedora, the sunglasses, and the loafers with sparkly socks. They are battled along the way by random bad guys and, at times, the props themselves.

But it is the King of Pop's songs that take center stage here with remixed and remastered versions of many of his biggest hits. Each is paired with a set piece featuring acrobats, aerialists, gymnasts, dancers, magicians, and other visual wonders that evoke the visuals created by Jackson in his videos or concerts instead of simply rehashing them in a live setting.

The first couple of numbers are a bit of Cirque's throw-it-all-on-the-stage-and-see-what-sticks production strategy, with things happening everywhere you look during "Beat It" and "Tabloid Junkie." But the first truly unforgettable moment happens a few minutes in during the lesser known "Stranger in Moscow." Rope artists twirl during a winter scene that builds from a few virtual flakes on the video projection walls to a full-on snowstorm inside the theater, complete with actual bits of frozen water drifting down on the audience. It's a breathtaking moment.

And they keep coming from there. "Bad" features a riff on the gangs in the video, riding in on zip lines and bouncing around on what can best be described as a giant rubber band; "Smooth Criminal" has a team of gymnasts doing wild flips on an inflatable stage; an absolutely genius-level animator (the dance style) twists and turns his way through a solo set to a mashup of "Human Nature" and "Never Can Say Goodbye" (that had better be on the inevitable soundtrack); "Earth Song" uses a giant screen to project dramatic shadows that seem to blend with one another in impossible ways; "Dirty Diana" has a pole dancer doing a PG version of the style; a team of acrobats uses hats in a twirling, twisting sleight of hand routine with "Wanna Be Startin' Something;" and so on.

In a show full of standout moments there are a few that really take things to a different, incredible level. "Billie Jean" pays homage to the lighted sidewalk visuals in the original music video with dancers in lighted suits walking up walls and strobing across the otherwise darkened stage while "Thriller" enhances Cirque's fairly standard trampoline routine with a zombie and graveyard setting.

The latter is a terrific example of how the production uses the iconic choreography to dramatic effect, weaving it in and out of the staging in moments that will spark the sense memory of just about anyone who ever saw one of Jackson's videos. The action subtly moves from the trampolines to the front of the stage and suddenly the dancers are doing the full routine that inspired many an '80s teenager to get up and move like a zombie. And the moment in "Smooth Criminal" where the entire company goes into a gravity defying lean is nothing less than ovation-worthy.

The emotional capper is with a brilliantly realistic hologram of Jackson dancing and seemingly interacting with others on stage during the still-inspirational "Man in the Mirror." I'm not ashamed to say that I got a little teary eyed, not over the loss of the admittedly damaged man but over the void that loss created in the world of popular culture.

Which brings up an important point, or three. The production touches briefly on some of the lesser scandals in Jackson's life, from his bid to buy the Elephant Man bones to his supposed predilection for sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, but the bigger scandals are left wisely unmentioned. There is a little bit of hagiography, but for the most part they don't attempt to turn Jackson into some sort of saint. They just let his music and imagery do the talking and the moon-walking.

In the end you probably have to be at least passingly familiar with, and not completely averse to, Jackson's music to appreciate this show. If that's you, your reaction may be like mine to LOVE, the Cirque production featuring music by The Beatles, which is that its fine and many of the set pieces are cool but it doesn't really speak to my generation of music appreciation.

This show totally does. I was in high school when "Thriller" came out in 1982 and was one of those geeks trying to emulate the zombie choreography. Jackson's music, dance, and style helped to shape my tastes and therefore it is difficult to view ONE objectively outside of that lens.

So take the following with as many generational and artistic preference grains of salt as you'd like: Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil is the best show in Las Vegas and one of the most exciting, awe-inspiring, and joyful shows anywhere. In a word: thrilling.

Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil
Mandalay Bay
3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Mon-Wed & Sat 7 & 9:30pm
Sun 4:30 & 7pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A


Show Review: Mystère by Cirque du Soleil

It's hard to imagine, but 2013 marked the 20th anniversary of the debut of Mystère, the Cirque du Soleil production at Treasure Island that virtually overnight changed the face of Las Vegas entertainment and laid the groundwork for almost every show that followed it, whether it was produced by Cirque or not.

Mystère has always been the kind of show that you could see over and over again and it never lost its ability to wow. But after nearly 20 years, a refresh was in order and new acts have been introduced into the show. The changes are subtle and seamless, allowing the production to keep all of the things that made it a fan favorite for the past two decades while updating it just enough to make it feel new again.

Adequately describing a show like Mystère is like trying to explain that beautiful dream you had last night. It's so powerful that it stays with you long after it's over but as soon as you start to put it into words you realize you can't even come close to capturing the full effect. Forgive me in advance for even trying.

The show is a broad mixture of jaw-dropping circus style acrobatics and gymnastics, fantastical avant-garde theater style dance and production numbers, and some laugh-out-loud comic relief. It's all wrapped up in an almost hallucinatory package of special effects fog, soaring (and descending) hydraulic staging, and ethereal music all of which only reinforces the dreamlike quality of the production.

Get there early so you can appreciate the majestic stage and the antics that happen on it before the show. Just be warned that if you see a crazed looking guy in a suit lit by a spotlight headed in your direction as you're trying to find your seat you may want to duck in a corner unless you want to become a part of the pre-show entertainment. This is Cirque's version of a clown, albeit one without floppy feet and a big red nose, who teases and taunts the arriving guests before and during the production.

The show proper opens with the trademark Cirque aesthetic - a "where to look now?" blend of acrobats descending from the rafters, baby carriages rolling across the stage, sleekly costumed dancers and actors throughout the theater, an adult "baby" bouncing a big red ball and sucking on a bottle, a gibberish speaking emcee of sorts and his giant ostrich-like puppet, an adult "toddler" in her pajamas looking for her toy snail... again, this is where words fail. It sounds odd and in many ways it is, but it's a visual feast that will have you wishing they would rewind and do it all again so you can catch the pieces you missed while you were looking at something else.

Does it all have some sort of deeper meaning? If it does, far be it from me to try to tell you what it is. That's one of the things I most deeply love about this show. If you want to sit back and enjoy the acrobatics, dance, and comedy you can take the production at face value and still be fulfilled. If, however, you want to search for a subtext about the meaning of life, death, fulfillment, passion, and/or the human condition you can do so and find your own definitions. They may not be the same as the guy sitting next to you but that's okay. That's fantastic, actually.

An example of a circus style act is a good example of this "take from it what you want" mandate. An aerialist/acrobat descends from the ceiling in an aluminum framed cube, twirling it and himself high above the stage. He is lowered to the floor where the heavily costumed cast members help him remove his "cage" and he goes on a soaring flight via a bungee style cord around the theater. At the end the man is standing on the stage, spinning the giant cube in his hand as the theater lights gleam off the metal edges capturing a rainbow of color.

Is it a commentary on taking control of your life? Escaping your own "cage" and flying high, showing that we are ultimately in control of the things that imprison us spiritually and emotionally? Sure, why not? Or it's a really great circus act. Either way, if the moment where the acrobat runs and jumps and literally flies out over the audience doesn't cause you to gasp at least a little, you really should have your pulse checked. For me it was the definition of breath-taking no matter how many times I have seen it.

Other visually and physically stunning acts follow: a pair of men act as "living sculpture," slowly and elegantly balancing themselves and each other in a virtuoso level performance that will either leave you emotionally drained or wanting to join a gym (or perhaps both); a company of acrobats climb poles, jumping, posing, and leaping around on them as assuredly as monkeys in trees, creating more than one "how can any human being possibly do that?" moment; a group of gymnasts uses a teeter-totter and giant trampolines as their spectacle sized playground; and a stage full of pounding, tribal drummers brings the whole thing to an auditory, visual, and emotional crescendo.

New acts include a solo "silk" artist who tumbles and twirls on long drapes hanging from the ceiling and a revised trapeze closing number that amps up the drama with some seemingly impossible stunts.

My favorite piece by far is the set with six aerialists on swings and bungee cords high above the audience. Costumed in sleek body suits festooned with glittering streamers they tumble, spin, and soar in a glorious evocation of flying freedom that still makes me catch my breath. It is beauty brought to life.

There's so much more to the show than even what I've described here but to catalogue it all is not only virtually impossible but unnecessary. I'm one of those who sees Mystère as more than just a sum of its extraordinary parts, finding inspiration and enrichment in my personal interpretation of what it all means. How you choose to interpret the show is up to you but whether it leaves you moved to the point of speechlessness or simply blows you away by the sheer spectacle of it all, it is an experience that you will not forget and absolutely should not miss on your next trip to Las Vegas, whether you've seen it before or not.

Here's to the next 20 years.

Mystère by Cirque du Soleil
Treasure Island
3300 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Sat-Wed 7 & 9:30pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A


Show Review: KÀ by Cirque du Soleil

NOTE: The show is playing in a modified format with the final battle scene detailed below replaced. This is following the July 1, 2013 death of a performer during the show.

I know what you're thinking: "there are to many Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas."

Maybe, if they were all as ground-breaking, mind-blowing, and visually stunning as KÀ, the production at the MGM Grand, it totally wouldn't matter how many there are.

You'll get a sense that this is a different kind of Cirque du Soleil as soon as you enter the theater. Dramatic multi-level catwalks jut out into, around, and above the audience space, serving to draw the viewers into the action, which begins even before the non-existent curtain rises. As with most Cirque productions you should get there early so you can catch the "pre-show," in this case a group of aerial performers doing wire work around the catwalks as the audience members take their seats.

The second thing you'll notice is the absence of an actual stage. Instead of a floor (or a pool for that matter), there is giant, empty space - a pit emitting smoke and the occasional burst of fire hot enough to be felt twenty rows back.

But the most important difference between KÀ and other Cirque productions is the story. Yes, there's an actual, linear storyline as opposed to the traditional series of aerial and human strength acts tied together by performance art pieces that usually leave the audience visually stimulated but scratching their heads going "huh?"

KÀ tells the story of twins - a boy and a girl - separated by war between two tribes in what appears to be ancient China, who must find their way back to each other with the assistance of family, friends, strangers, enemies, and a few animals for good measure. Despite the fact the story is told completely without dialogue - at least no dialogue in any real language - the twins' journey and the dangers awaiting them are easy to understand yet still retain that visually arresting Cirque style viewers have come to expect.

Central to that style in this particular production is the remarkable staging conceit: instead of a traditional stage, the performers act out the story on a giant 50'x25' floating platform that can be raised or lowered, spun 360 degrees, or turned on it's side or end to create a five story vertical wall. Other hydraulically operated platforms come in from the sides or the back to create an almost limitless series of sets, from a village square to a sandy beach to a sheer mountain face to an apocalyptic factory and beyond.

The overall style of the piece in both tone and story appears to be influenced by Chinese martial arts films. If you've seen "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero," or "House of Flying Daggers" you'll recognize the touches throughout in epic sword battles, sneak bow and arrow attacks, and high-flying choreography.

The story begins as the twins arrive on a barge - the platform floating up - and take part in their village's pageant of martial arts. Suddenly the village comes under attack from a tribe of Archers and Spearsmen, separating the siblings.

The Twin Sister (as she is referred to in the credits) and several fellow villagers escape to a boat that sinks in stormy seas then find themselves washed ashore on a strange beach where crabs, centipedes, and starfish (costumed performers) pop up to frighten and amuse. Read that sentence again - sinking boats, underwater struggles, surf and sand - and realize this is not a movie, but a live stage production. The boat, for instance, is a specially designed, 1800 pound structure that rocks and rotates violently in the storm, with all the motion provided solely by the artists on board. Reminding yourself this is happening before your eyes is something you'll have to do throughout KÀ as the visuals evoke the setting in ways that leave you struggling to comprehend as anything other than magical.

The Twin Brother is spirited away by a protector who connects with the boy in a virtuoso display of shadow puppetry, displayed in giant form on the staging platform, now turned on its side.

Meanwhile the Twin Sister and her comrades are discovered by the Archers and Spearsmen and must flee up a "cliff" - the platform tilted and canted at a steep angle. As arrows and spears appear to narrowly miss our heroes and imbed themselves in the "rock," the performers use these pegs sticking out of the platform to stage a dramatic ballet of sorts, sliding, falling, and swinging across the face of the "cliff" without the aid of any harnesses or wires.

The Twin Sister manages to escape and is rescued, briefly, by a mountain tribe but the Archers and Spearsmen are not far behind. The girl has to escape in a man-powered flying device resembling a giant bird that floats off the top of the "mountain" and swoops out over the audience.

The whole thing leads to an epic battle between the two sides done on the staging platform as it stands on its end, a sheer vertical wall that the performers appear to walk and fight upon standing upright. It's as if we, the audience, is viewing the battlefield from high above, with all of the soaring aerial work and swordplay done in defiance of silly things like gravity.

In between are evil henchmen, a romance or two, lessons about war and peace, family, and friendship. It's all told with the kind of visual flair and dramatic acrobatic set pieces people expect from the geniuses at Cirque du Soleil.

The show is not perfect. Some of the "storyline" scenes seem to drag on a little, leaving audiences itching for the next big fight or aerial bit of derring-do. But when the whole thing wraps up it's the epic but sweet tale of these two twins that sticks with you just as much as the "how did they do that?" questions you will inevitably be asking yourself.

Lots of people, including myself, have wondered if the city has Cirque saturation. So long as they keep doing shows as well as KÀ, a masterpiece of storytelling, staging, performance, and production, they can have as many in Las Vegas as they want.

KÀ by Cirque du Soleil
MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Tue-Sat 7 & 9:30pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A


Show Review: O by Cirque du Soleil

Choosing your favorite Cirque du Soleil show is a bit like choosing your favorite child. No one wins.

There are a lot of people who choose O at Bellagio as their favorite and it is hard to argue with them. It is stunning, both artistically and, at times, emotionally as their blend of daring acrobatics, eye-popping set pieces, music, and humor come together to create a package that is at once unique and yet familiar to anyone who has seen a Cirque show before. And yet, as good as it is, I can't quite get to the point where I can call it my favorite.

The central conceit here is the stage has been replaced with a giant tank holding 1.5 million gallons of water. Platforms raise in and out of it to create a solid stage at times, but most often it's a big pool. What this means is that you have people swimming in it, diving into it, or hovering around or above it and rather than expanding the possibilities of the action it seems to hinder it. After a while the acrobatic portion of the Cirque canon starts to feel a bit repetitive.

There are some standout moments. The gymnastics performed above the pool on what appears to be a pirate ship floating through the air are gasp-inducing (especially when someone misses and they plunge into the pool below). And the diving segment that starts with people launching from swings beside the stage and ends with high-dives from the top of the theater is impressive. Also enjoyable are the clowns that provide some comic relief before and during the show. They even have a couple of sweet moments that speak to the value of friendship as they work together to keep their floating house from sinking.

The rest of the acts - synchronized swimming, trapeze artists, contortionists, fire dancers, and the like - are typical Cirque stock and trade, which is to say that the performers are great at what they do but not especially unique.

The visuals are perhaps the most exciting part of the show. It's like one long fever dream with wild costumes, amazing sets, and avant garde props. The part where red-coated men float in on carousel horses that slowly melt into the pool is nothing short of gorgeous.

If you were to pin me down and force me to pick my favorite Cirque children I'd have to go with Michael Jackson ONE first, Mystère second, KA third, and then O fourth. That is in no way a knock against O - it is an amazing show - but rather a statement about how the other three are just a bit more amazing. But despite the high ticket prices, even if you decide O is your favorite child, you will not likely be disappointed in your choice.

O by Cirque du Soleil
3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Wed-Sun 7:30 & 10pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B+


Show Review: LOVE by Cirque du Soleil

Let's get a couple of things out of the way right up front. First, I'm not a Beatles fan. I'm a child of the 70s and 80s and so I missed that particular train the first time around and by the time it looped back I was too immersed in disco, pop, R&B, and funk to notice. It's not that I actively dislike music from the Fab Four - I don't dive toward the radio to turn if off if one of their songs come on and I find some of their music catchy, I guess, but unless Ferris is twisting and shouting in the streets of Chicago to one of their tunes I just never paid that much attention.

Second, I'm a big fan of Cirque du Soleil, especially their dramatic aerial and acrobatic work that often leaves me gasping and awe-struck.

Their production at The Mirage entitled "Love," featuring music by The Beatles, doesn't have a lot of that circus style dramatics, focusing more on dance and theatrical visuals. So, Beatles music and not the Cirque I'm used to. I think you can see where this is going.

The theater is disconcerting when you first enter. Replacing the more traditional Siegfried and Roy theater with this in-the-round one was probably a good idea since it gives the performance more immediacy and provides the effect, at times, as if you are in the heart of the action. But the lack of a formal stage, the giant LED screens lining the walls, and the strange seating configuration (hard to explain, but trust me) means that at one point or another there will be something happening somewhere that you won't be able to see clearly. Granted it will probably be a minor bit of background color but still.

The soundtrack to the show is re-mastered and remixed versions of classics from John, Paul, George, and Ringo with quite a bit of in-studio conversation thrown in for good measure. Sonically it's a delight with crystal clear vocals and digital enhancements that far exceed any original recording. If you are a fan of the music, you'll never hear it anywhere like this.

On the play list: "Get Back," "Eleanor Rigby," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "Drive My Car," "Something," "Help," "Yesterday," "Strawberry Fields," "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "Octopus's Garden," "Lady Madonna," "Here Comes the Sun," "Come Together," "Revolution," "Back in the USSR," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Hey Jude," and "Sergeant Pepper" among others. Classic stuff to be sure.

But it's what Cirque does with the music that is what's important here, challenging and, in fits and spurts, rewarding but never cohesive or as awe-inspiring as some of their other shows.

The opening to "Get Back" is a pastiche of Cirque cliché's with the oddly costumed performers dancing, walking slowly, and climbing or bouncing around on bungee style ropes. "Help" is done with inline skaters zooming around on a couple of half-pipes. "Strawberry Fields" features a piano center stage filled with soapy fluid that performers use hoops and the like to make giant bubbles with. Four aerialists do slow-motion rope work (twirling, falling, climbing, etc.) surrounding a big blazing orb during "Here Comes the Sun." Most of the rest of the pieces are accompanied by dance of various types and styles, although mostly in the modern/lyrical category.

I'm not sure what any of that has to do with the songs but that's not exactly the point, obviously. If you want literal interpretation go watch Vevo. But that's part of the problem with the show, in my humble and decidedly MTV generation opinion. The most successful numbers were the ones where they went with a more obvious connection to the music, such as the "Something" number, where four women on bungee-style cords move toward and away from a male dancer ("something in the way she moves...") and the "Revolution" and "Back in the USSR" section where acrobats dressed as counter-culture hippies battled London police in a dramatic airborne battle via trampolines and nets.

The dance numbers, which make up about 75% of the show by my estimation, are also hit and miss depending on the visual interpretation. "Lady Madonna," with a pregnant woman and the presumed father of the child doing a "Stomp" style routine in yellow rain boots is pretty cool but "Come Together," done as a simple pas de deux between several couples seemed like a missed opportunity. That song is one of the few Beatles tunes that I find aurally challenging - dark and moody with a great bass line - and all I could think of when I was watching the dance piece unfolding was what they could have done with the song (I'm thinking soaring aerialists circling and eventually coming together in an airborne ballet but that's just me).

That latter line of thinking also exposes another challenge with this show. Love them, hate them, or fall somewhere in between on the subject, songs by The Beatles are revered as holy. Coming from the pre-music video age means that, for the most part, the pictures painted by these songs were up to the interpretation of the listener. Now by putting visual pictures with the songs, the creators run the risk of crossing a line or playing it too safe. I think they did the latter.

I'm reminded of a cartoon strip called "Bloom County." Binkley is remarking to his friend Milo about a new video he saw for John Lennon's "Imagine." It was filled with half-naked women, explosions, and porpoises frolicking in the ocean. Now, he says, "Every time I hear the song I picture half-naked exploding porpoises."

There are no half-naked exploding porpoises in "Love" but what there is leaves me just as cold. In most of the other Cirque du Soleil productions there are moments of "WOW" - visuals that stuck with me long after I left the theater. I didn't get a "WOW" moment in "Love" and I don't think it has anything to do with not being a fan of The Beatles. It has to do with being a disappointed fan of Cirque du Soleil.

LOVE by Cirque du Soleil
The Mirage
3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Thu-Mon 7 & 9:30pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B


Show Review: Zarkana by Cirque du Soleil

To understand where this show is at you have to look at where the show has been.

It started as a touring rock opera, complete with songs and a storyline centering on Zark, a man on a mission to regain his lost magical powers and the love of a good woman. He acted as the ringleader, of sorts, paving the way for various Cirque acts that filled up the rest of the show.

When it was transplanted here to Vegas at Aria to take the place of the accessible but underperforming Presley-themed show "Viva Elvis," they kept the storyline and the music but they swapped out the English language lyrics for Cirque-style nonsensical babble - it sounds vaguely Italian, but isn't. What you were left with was people singing emphatically about, well, who knows? It seemed really important.

In 2014 the powers that be reimagined the show once again by stripping out the storyline, the random Cirque-babble songs, and even Zark himself. In their place you get more Cirque-style acrobatics, aerialists, and miscellaneous feats of human flexibility and imagination.

It's a vast improvement over the previous incarnation of the show but it still feels a little bit haphazard, like they operated on the patient to remove his appendix and then replaced it with a rabbit in a top hat. Rabbits in top hats are cool but it doesn't exactly fit where the appendix used to be.

The are small acts that make an impact including a woman opening the show with an impressive, although low-key, mastery of the art of bouncing tennis balls (I bet you didn't know that was an art form, but in this performer's hands it is); a couple balancing on ladders that provided a few clench-your-armrest moments; guys throwing flags across the stage in an intricate puzzle of staging; and a gymnast doing some amazing stunts on a flexible plank suspended on the shoulders of two burly men.

The bigger acts feel a little "done," at least to my jaded eyes and maybe to yours if you've had any experience with Cirque shows before. There's a high-wire act, a flying trapeze group, a spinning wheel device on which people run and jump and balance, a company of acrobats, and a cadre of people spinning in oversized rings. It's entertaining, to be sure, especially for folks who are new to Cirque, but many of these left me glancing at my watch.

A new act is certainly a standout. Two twin brothers do an aerial ballet that is both beautifully choreographed and gasp-inducing in its complexity. They are worth the ticket price alone, as is act that features nothing more than a man dancing and showing off his impressive gymnastic skills. The staging is what makes it memorable, with lights casting his shadow in giant relief on the walls of the theater and a special effect behind him that mimics his movements in what appears to be wisps of smoke. Two pianists on grand pianos accompany the dancer, helping to making the piece almost heart-breaking in its simplicity. It was, by far, my favorite moment of the entire show.

A disappointment is that they have changed the sand artist act, where a person creates landscapes, people, and scenes you have just witnessed out of a thin sheen of blue sand on a screen broadcast to the audience. Before you got to watch the person and the process; now you just see the screen, which lessens the impact.

And if it were up to me, I'd lessen the presence of the clowns, a duo that creates filler while they are changing the set behind the curtain. I get that they need something to keep the show moving forward but by the time they get to the silly audience participation bit involving an electric chair and a pretty girl, I just want them to go away.

I like the new Zarkana more than I did the old but it still has a lot of competition in Vegas for your Cirque dollars. With the genius storytelling and cohesive packages of shows like Michael Jackson ONE, Mystère, , and O, it's hard to suggest that Zarkana is the one you should see when you are in town unless you've already seen the others.

Zarkana by Cirque du Soleil
3730 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Fri-Tue 7 & 9:30pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B


Show Review: Zumanity by Cirque du Soleil

Anyone who has seen the other Vegas Cirque du Soleil shows can probably attest to the fact that Cirque knows "sexy." Portions of those shows are downright erotic in a way that doesn't pander or talk down to the audience so it seemed like a natural extension of that ethos to develop an entire show immersed in sexuality and a celebration of same. That was the theory behind "Zumanity," the Cirque du Soleil production playing at New York-New York since August of 2003.

When I first saw this show shortly after it opened, I was unimpressed to say the least. Somewhere between the theory and the reality the concept of what is truly sexy got lost along the way and "Zumanity" wound up failing to rise to the challenge in more ways than one. Instead of titillating we got tacky; instead of naughty we got nasty; instead of erotic we got "ewww." Instead of aspiring to the relative class of "Playboy," it was what the magazine "Hustler" would be if it Larry Flynt could turn it into a musical.

Since then the show has evolved as most long-running shows in Las Vegas do and I'm happy to report that it has definitely improved. Like other Cirque productions, "Zumanity" is a blend of avant-garde theater and circus-style acrobatics only here they are all staged with an eye toward sex and some of its various permutations. There are topless contortionists swimming in a giant martini glass, a hot girl in a naughty schoolgirl outfit that does some pretty amazing things with hoops, and a latex wearing "slave" that spins in a giant ring while dominatrices with whips spur him on to dizzying extremes.

Newer acts are more sensual and strive toward an eroticism that may not always be achieved, but at least they are reaching up instead of sinking to the gutter for the attempt. And some of the truly vulgar bits have been thankfully excised. The comic relief bridge acts with a randy married couple offering up advice on everything from do-it-yourself breast implants to some inept seduction techniques are quite funny. Just do your best to avoid being chosen out of the audience to come up on stage - you'll thank me later.

One of the biggest changes is one of the biggest improvements. For years, the ringmaster of this particular circus was legendary female impersonator Joey Arias, but she has been replaced by popular drag queen Miss Edie. The difference between female impersonator and drag queen is not a subtle one and Edie brings some much needed levity and camp to the proceedings. It's a lot more fun with her at the helm.

But the crass is still there and that's one of the biggest disappointments for me about "Zumanity." Cirque has always delighted in the metaphorical, using vivid, often surreal imagery to create whatever atmosphere they're aiming for. Here, the metaphorical is often replaced by the literal, in effect telling the audience what to think and therefore removing the opportunity for us to find our own meanings.

Here's an example: male dancers lounge onstage watching a football game on television while the female dancers attempt to get their attention through a series of strip club worthy gyrations. Yeah, men should pay more attention to their women - we get it. But couldn't there have been a less obvious way of saying that? And couldn't it have ended in a way that didn't involve the women basically turning themselves into the Girls of Glitter Gulch in order to drag their men's eyeballs away from the TV?

The show bills itself as a celebration of all forms of human sexuality and boy oh boy are there a lot of them included here. Men with women, men with men, women with women, masochism, auto-asphyxiation, self-gratification, orgies, certain... um.... "devices" for lack of a better word... strippers, and costumes (French Maid anyone?) are just a few of diversions featured in the show.

Ultimately "Zumanity" fails by trying too hard to be provocative. The people and the things that are truly "sexy" don't need to work so hard to be that way - they just are. Catherine Zeta-Jones is sexy in a way that almost dares you to not look at her. Miley Cyrus tries to be sexy by begging you to look at her and more often than not doesn't succeed.

Sex, if done properly, should be fun, exciting, creative, energetic, surprising, original, and involving. "Zumanity" is occasionally all of those things but never at the same time and certainly not for the duration of the 90-minute show.

Then again, when was the last time you were all of those things for 90-minutes?

On the other hand, when was the last time someone paid you $100 to be all of those things for 90-minutes?

Okay, we're straying into dangerous territory here.

Zumanity by Cirque du Soleil
New York New York
3790 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Fri-Tue 7:30 & 10pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: C+