Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Viva Elvis’ serves the king

Forget the iconic white jumpsuit, the caricature of gilded celebrity and the gossipy whispers that attended a dispirited legend’s final bow.

Forget -- heaven help us -- the peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

That’s not what “Viva Elvis,” Cirque du Soleil’s latest acrobatic-musical extravaganza, is about.

Rather, Gilles Ste-Croix and Stéphane Mongeau were saying the other day, it’s about evoking an extraordinary man and his shape-shifting times. It’s about honoring a musician who unified the once-segregated genres of pop, gospel, country and blues into the mongrel art form known as rock ‘n’ roll, and ushered American pop culture into the frenetic, youth-centric Atomic Age.

It’s about celebrating a prodigiously charismatic performer whose insistence on pleasing his audience helped resurrect a culturally moribund desert metropolis founded on sand and mob money. It’s about conveying the genius of a crooning, gyrating entertainment genius of the 1950s and ‘60s to a generation that wasn’t even born when Elvis Aaron Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, age 42, leaving rock temporarily monarch-less and much of the planet in mourning.


In short, it’s about addressing a great epistemological conundrum of our times: What would Elvis do?

“Everything we did, we [thought] if Elvis lived today . . . then how would he do it, in the context of Las Vegas today?” said Ste-Croix, Cirque’s senior vice president of creative content and new projects development, during an interview in Québécois-infused English with Mongeau last week. “That was the direction of the creators.”

Ste-Croix and Mongeau, the show’s executive producer, describe the new production not as a musical bio-drama, but as a “retro-contemporized” tribute that unfolds like a live concert. Although Cirque’s production will reference certain key episodes of Presley’s life and career, such as his service in the U.S. Army and his acting career, “it’s not a historic show,” Mongeau stressed.

“It’s a show about a man, his emotion, what he brought,” Mongeau continued. “And it’s not a show about Elvis, it’s a show with Elvis.”

In keeping with that concept, none of the show’s 75 artists -- including 26 dancers, 26 acrobats, four featured female singers and a live band -- actually will portray or otherwise represent Presley on stage. The king will be glimpsed in vintage film clips, graphic imagery and scenic and abstract props, such as a gigantic pompadour. But as far as impersonations, the Cirque creative team is leaving those to the legions of side-burned, rhinestone-studded guys who pop up in beery nightclub acts around town.

“It would not be fair for Elvis” to portray him, Mongeau said, “because Elvis is greater than what we could imagine.”

In exploring Presley’s musical legacy, “Viva Elvis” will highlight the singer’s recorded voice on many of his signature tunes. But those unmistakable purrs and growls will be set to punchy new musical arrangements in a mode that Ste-Croix characterized as “Black Eyed Peas meet Elvis.”

As the men spoke, a few feet away on a sprawling stage book-ended by two new monumental gold Elvis statues, a troupe of young dancers warmed up for the show’s concluding number, “Viva Las Vegas,” inspired by the song and movie, in which Presley starred with Swedish sex kitten Ann-Margret, of the same name.

The venue, a custom-built 2,000-seat theater with every imaginable backstage technology and enough fly space to land a UFO, is among the prime attractions of the new ultra-upscale Aria Resort & Casino, the centerpiece of the massive new CityCenter urban complex on the Las Vegas Strip. “Viva Elvis” will christen the space with tonight’s VIP opening performance; the first public previews will begin on Friday and the official premiere will be Feb. 19.

Back together

In a city where nuptial arrangements can be dicey affairs at best, the marriage (or menage) of Elvis, Vegas and Cirque seems almost celestially ordained, as did Presley’s real-life gig there four decades ago.

With the demise of the Rat Pack and the emergence of the counterculture, Sin City by the late 1960s had degenerated into Squaresville, USA. Woodstock and the Haight, not Fremont Street, were where all the cool stuff was happening, and cruddy jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts, not seersucker jackets and beehive ‘do’s, were the ne plus ultra of youthful fashion.

When Presley was lured to Las Vegas in 1969 by entertainment mogul Kirk Kerkorian to perform at his International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton), he reclaimed it for the rock ‘n’ roll generation. (His peer, Barbra Streisand, achieved much the same thing for pop music when she began performing there at the same time.)

His concerts not only packed in the crowds but were proclaimed by the music press to be proof of Presley’s comeback, following a string of musical disappointments and the bottoming out of an acting career that rapidly turned the king of rock into a self-parodying crown prince of kitsch.

It is Elvis the dynamic stage performer, and particularly the Las Vegas performer, that Cirque’s show seeks to evoke and invoke.

“Really, overall that’s all he wanted,” Ste-Croix said. “He was a great performer and he wanted to entertain the crowd. And that’s what he did at the Hilton, that’s what he did in the movies and that’s what he did all his life.”

Today, Cirque du Soleil, which already has six Las Vegas-based shows including “O,” “Zumanity” and the Beatles homage “Love,” is a brand name that defines Las Vegas much as Presley did in his day.

The Montreal-based company is partnered in its latest enterprise with CKX Inc., a mega-manager-owner of entertainment-related content and intellectual properties, and its subsidiary Elvis Presley Enterprises, the corporate entity created by Presley’s trust to manage its assets.

Return of the king

Among those attending tonight’s VIP performance will be the best-known guardian of that trust, the king’s ex-wife Priscilla Presley. Speaking by phone, Priscilla Presley acknowledged she was feeling a bit, uh, all shook up about the opening, albeit in a positive way.

“I feel like it’s the first time that Elvis went on stage,” she said. “It’s just nerve-racking.”

In that regard, Presley could be channeling her ex, who when he performed in Las Vegas grew antsier by the minute as an opening-night audience that included Pat Boone, Cary Grant and Fats Domino filed into the Showroom Internationale. “He didn’t want to know who was out there in the crowd,” Priscilla Presley said.

Yet his show was an immediate success, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to the gambling mecca. According to Ste-Croix, at one point during Presley’s appearances, one out of every two Las Vegas tourists was coming to town specifically to attend his concerts.

“I think he put Vegas on the map in a way that it hadn’t been,” Priscilla Presley said. Las Vegas returned the favor, she added, by giving her ex-husband a way to relaunch his career as a live performer after a 10-year absence from big stages.

“It brought him back to the forefront and it brought him back to what he loved most. It brought him back in contact with the audience and with his fans,” she said.

Given its show’s unabashedly celebratory spirit, it’s not surprising that Cirque isn’t touching those aspects of Elvis’ life that have kept conspiracy theorists, tabloid journalists, assistant professors of American studies and schadenfreude mongers in clover for 32 years.

Priscilla Presley said that no preconditions or restrictions were set on what could, or could not, be included in “Viva Elvis.” But she clearly seems pleased with Cirque’s artistic focus, and suggests that a show about Elvis is better off without scholarly footnotes.

“I think he’s been over-analyzed,” she said. “I think if he ever heard the stuff, he’d be shaking in his boots. It was all about entertaining, it was all about rapport with your audience and giving them their money’s worth.”

Her hope, she said, is that “Viva Elvis” could do for Las Vegas today what Elvis’ appearances did in a previous era beset by economic hard times.

“I’m hoping this’ll renew Vegas again and get people back to work,” Priscilla Presley said, adding that in the ‘70s everyone from waiters to blackjack dealers and limousine drivers felt the impact of the king’s return to his court.

“Everybody was happy when Elvis Presley came to town.”