Theater review: ‘Viva Elvis’ -- Cirque du Soleil brings the King back to Vegas

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Viva Elvis

Midway into Cirque du Soleil’s latest eye-popping Vegas production, “Viva Elvis,” there’s a segment saluting Elvis Presley’s love affair with Hollywood. It’s an upbeat, thigh-slapping ersatz western number in which one of the troupe’s dancers, outfitted as a movie cowboy, spins a lasso that keeps expanding until it seems to take in half the stage at the Aria Resort & Casino, where the show had its glitzy premiere Friday.

Impressive as that was to behold, it underscored how the Canadian company can’t get a rope around the mythic figure that is the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. All the signature Cirque elements are here: breathtaking acrobatics, dazzlingly inventive sets, joyfully inspired costumes and imaginatively reimagined music -- the bulk of it derived from Presley’s recordings.


But Cirque’s creative team appears to have set a standard for itself, and others, with the Beatles-driven “Love” show just down the street, which is not easily equaled, much less surpassed. That venture not only taps the musical spirit, but also reaches to the magical soul of the Fab Four, something that “Viva Elvis” aspires to only fleetingly in paying homage to pop music’s other titanic figure.

“Love” brought the Beatles to Las Vegas without a hint of schlock, a mission apparently impossible with Elvis given that his association with Sin City virtually defined the contemporary notion of pop-culture kitsch.

Cirque might have attempted to ignore that aspect of his career, but instead embraces it, and often in witty, mostly affectionate ways in a production for which tickets run $99 to $175. Ultimately, however, “Viva Elvis” is skewed more toward fans who are captivated by the cultural excess of Graceland than those most drawn to the startling power of his best music.

The show unfolds roughly chronologically, and incorporates lessons learned from “Love” in the lively de- and reconstructions of nearly three dozen of his studio recordings. Presley’s vocals are often detached from the original instrumental backing and paired with a live band that belts behind his voice with considerable gusto.

Cirque’s smart move from the outset was bypassing the use of any male singers for live renditions of his songs: Several numbers that are rendered anew are sung by female cast members, occasionally in duet with the King’s own disembodied voice.

But “Viva Elvis” doesn’t spend a lot of time trying explore the mystery of Elvis. It prefers to celebrate the public figure, and does so with great affection if not always with meticulous attention to historical accuracy or cultural credibility.

The show’s use of the character of Col. Tom Parker as narrator paints him as a sympathetic father figure -- “With Elvis,” he announces fondly, “every day was an adventure!” -- overlooking the self-enriching career and life direction the onetime carny gave his most famous client. “Elvis put Las Vegas on the map!” the Parker character intones without a hint of irony or even self-serving bluster, a statement that fans of Frank Sinatra might take issue with.

It also gives equal weight, and value, to his fallow Hollywood years as to his creatively explosive ‘50s period when he truly left the world all shook up.

One of the few times the show taps the pathos and tragedy of Presley’s life story, part of what makes that story so emotionally rich, is in the delivery of “One Night.” Instead of the ribald R&B number that Elvis transformed from “One Night of Sin” into “One Night With You,” it’s rendered here as a disarmingly graceful ballad, sung by a woman in contemporary tank top and jeans as she watches two men athletically working their way around a gigantic guitar-shaped metal framework suspended from above.

The men are dressed identically in the standard-issue teenage boy uniform of the ‘50s: white T-shirts, cuffed blue jeans and black Oxford shoes, representing Elvis Aaron and his twin, Jesse Garon, who died at birth. At the end of the number, while Elvis scales the neck of the guitar climbing toward the heaven-bound headstock, Jesse drops from one of the bottom rungs into a pit below, one hint at the personal loss that haunted him throughout his life.

There’s also a gorgeous and moving aerial pas de deux in which two troupe members float effortlessly through the air to accompany the weightless sound of Elvis’ vocal on “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

Among the other individual set pieces, “Got a Lot O’ Livin’ to Do” takes an audio clip in which Presley expresses his youthful passion for comic books as the foundation for a fanciful trampoline workout for acrobats fitted in various superhero-inspired costumes. “Bossa Nova Baby” incorporates a nerve-testing chair-balancing act full of characters in garish ‘60s hipster duds.

The two most striking numbers are the military-based treatment of “Return to Sender” that follows film footage of Presley’s 1958 swearing-in as a U.S. Army private, and an electrifying reinvention of the iconic “Jailhouse Rock” movie production number.

The show goes on to reference his fairytale wedding to Priscilla Beaulieu, as well as their tempestuous life together -- minus any allusions to the birth of Lisa Marie. It offers remarkably little acknowledgment of the career-rejuvenating 1968 NBC-TV comeback special, but not surprisingly concludes with an extended tribute to the years at the end of his life spent entertaining habitués of Vegas, a segment replete with showgirls in fancy headdresses and close to four dozen cast members, male and female, wearing multihued jumpsuits, plastic Elvis hairdos and sideburns for a valedictory Vegas-ized romp through “Hound Dog.” Happily, “Viva Elvis” stops short of any “Fat Elvis” gags.

Elvis Presley became the single most influential pop musician of the rock era by unleashing an innate genre- and color-blind talent that let him transcend his dirt-poor origins and achieve a previously unimaginable level of worldwide success, a story that still resonates powerfully because of the way that success fueled the excess that ultimately led to his downfall.

Cirque du Soleil clearly loves Elvis tender, but in the end “Viva Elvis” never lets him step off the mystery train.

-- Randy Lewis in Las Vegas