There he is, in vivid black and white, onstage at Las Vegas' new Aria hotel-casino, squalling "Blue Suede Shoes" on a gigantic screen behind a jukebox-shaped set. Below him, eight musicians serve as his amped-up house band while a dozen dancers practically leap out of their tight pants and pedal pushers. At center stage is a huge shoe, which another half-dozen revelers use as a trampoline, performing double somersaults in time to the music. The King looks down, smiling as if in approval of this spectacular union of two crucial elements--one past, one present--of Vegas show biz. Elvis Presley, meet Cirque du Soleil's Viva Elvis.
From his first concert series at the International Hotel in 1969 until his death in 1977, Elvis was Las Vegas. Glammed up in sequined duds that would make a showgirl or Liberace envious, he pleased his aging audience, singing his early hits that once had the musk of sexual revolt but by then were golden oldies. And while he redefined Sin City's notion of a headliner show, the town changed Presley as well. At the end, the kid from Tupelo, Miss., may have been more Vegas than Elvis.
The Strip has another king now. Since 1993, with the opening of Mystère, the Montreal-based Cirque has come to dominate Vegas entertainment with such theatrical extravaganzas as the water show O and the martial-arts epic Ka--pieces that in scope and technical éclat are to the typical Broadway show what Avatar is to the 1933 King Kong. In 2006, Cirque pulled off a Beatles homage, Love, but that was sedate stuff next to this audiovisual-balletic-acrobatic explosion from director Vincent Paterson and "director of creation" Armand Thomas. They've concocted an experience that's both symphonic and in every way fantastic.
Beginning and ending with Elvis '56 ("Blue Suede Shoes" to start, "Hound Dog" for the finale), the 90-min. show, now in previews before its official opening Feb. 19, sprints through Presley's youth, his first phenomenal success, his Army service, his marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu, his movies and the Vegas years. This is hagiography, not biography; it's no warts, all wonder.
The wonder comes not just in the death-taunting circus feats--trapeze agility, high-bar gymnastics--that are the company's hallmark but also in the superb editing of Elvis clips (by Ivan Dudynsky) and the savvy sampling of the musical material (by Erich van Tourneau) that revises and refreshes the Presley oeuvre. No tribute show can touch this one in its level of sophistication and its power of evocation.
Got a Lot o' Livin' to Do
In Vintage Cirque style, Viva Elvis often soars into the symbolic, the oneiric. To suggest the star's closeness to his twin brother Jesse, who died at birth, the show offers, to a tender rendition of the ballad "One Night," a vision of two young men in James Dean--ish white T-shirts and jeans, executing soulful acrobatics, alone and together, on a guitar-shaped apparatus suspended in front of a starry night sky. At the end, one of the men--Jesse--falls off into the abyss.