COVID pushed Cirque du Soleil into bankruptcy protection. Now for a Vegas comeback
Cirque du Soleil announced Wednesday that it will relaunch its two longest-running live shows in Las Vegas, “Mystère” and “O,” in time for the July Fourth weekend, signaling the company’s return to its biggest and most lucrative market and its first steps back onto the world stage since the COVID-19 pandemic hit more than a year ago.
“I think our opening becomes the symbol that entertainment is back,” said Cirque Chief Executive Daniel Lamarre. “We are intertwined. We are Vegas, and Vegas is Cirque du Soleil.”
“Mystère,” Cirque’s oldest show in Las Vegas, will resume performances at Treasure Island on June 28, and “O” will return to the Bellagio on July 1. Blue Man Group, which Cirque acquired in 2017, is scheduled to return to Luxor on June 24.
Cirque’s move comes on the heels of an announcement by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak that entertainment venues will be allowed to open at 100% capacity by June 1. Beginning May 1, counties will assume authority in overseeing coronavirus mitigation measures, and on Tuesday, Clark County (of which Vegas is a part) approved plans to operate at 80% capacity with three feet of social distance. Once 60% of eligible residents 16 and older have been vaccinated, events can proceed with no social distancing, provided the rate of positive coronavirus tests remains below 5%. Mask requirements will remain in place.
After a canceled season in 2020 — the first in 98 years — the Bowl will reopen with free shows for healthcare, grocery and other essential workers.
Lamarre said the Cirque shows will comply with the state mandates but are aiming to operate at full capacity, without social distancing. Cirque shows need only 40% capacity to break even, Lamarre said, but they are aiming for 100%. “O” has an audience capacity of 1,800, and “Mystère” seats 1,616. Blue Man Group accommodates 830.
The remaining three Cirque shows in Vegas — “The Beatles Love,” “Michael Jackson One” and “Kà" — will open later in the year, depending on how ticket sales go for the first two shows. Each production requires about two months of rehearsal, Lamarre said, with the casts of “Mystère” and “O” expected to return as soon as Monday.
Cirque announced in November that it was permanently closing its sixth Las Vegas show, the adult-themed “Zumanity,” after a 17-year run at New York New York Hotel & Casino. That show’s final performance was on March 14, 2020, a day before Cirque shows worldwide were shut down because of the pandemic.
The reopening of “O” and “Mystère” also will mark Cirque du Soleil’s return to Las Vegas under new ownership. The Montreal-based company filed for bankruptcy protection in June last year and laid off about 95% of its workforce, or about 3,500 employees worldwide. It emerged from bankruptcy protection in November with new owners led by Catalyst Capital Group, a Canadian private equity investment firm. One of Cirque’s two new board members is a former executive at MGM Resorts, where four of the five remaining Cirque shows are housed. (Bellagio is owned by the Blackstone Group but operated by MGM.) Cirque received a $375-million infusion to help jump-start the company.
About 300 cast and crew members will return to work on the Vegas Strip when the three shows resume rehearsals, Lamarre said.
“The good news is, all our cast and crew in Las Vegas live there, so it was easier to keep them and stay in communication with them,” he said, adding that Cirque covered their medical insurance and workers’ compensation during the shutdown.
Since Cirque opened “Mystère” in 1993 with its combination of acrobatics, contortionists, trapeze artists and clowns, the company has been credited with elevating the quality of entertainment in Las Vegas and helping to redefine the gambling mecca as a family-friendly vacation hub.
Not all of its Vegas shows have been as successful. Cirque’s Elvis Presley-themed show, “Viva Elvis,” closed in 2012 after a 2½-year run at Aria Resort and Casino. And its motorcycle-action-thriller “R.U.N,” written by Robert Rodriguez, closed on March 7, 2020, after a brief, accident-prone five-month run at Luxor.
Cirque’s relaunch represents optimism that Las Vegas entertainment can return to its pre-pandemic glory, but challenges remain. The number of visitors to the city was down by about 54% in February compared with a year earlier, according to the latest figures from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Hotel occupancy was down about 45% during that period, and the airport passenger count was down about 58% compared with the same period in 2020.
The numbers are beginning to creep up as more people are vaccinated and the state opens more fully. George Kliavkoff, president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts International, said the MGM hotels were running at about 90% occupancy on weekends and lower during the weekdays.
Food and drink concessions will be available to Cirque du Soleil audiences. Kliavkoff said no adjustments were necessary in the theaters because of the advanced ventilation systems already in place in the casinos, but other safety measures, such as paperless ticketing and heightened cleaning protocols, will be added.
Southern California is the largest feeder market for Las Vegas and therefore the largest buyer of tickets for most of the Vegas shows, Kliavkoff said. “That’s been particularly the case over the last couple of months as people have opted more so to drive, and as people have had fewer entertainment options in Southern California. They chose to come to Vegas to celebrate their newfound freedom.”
Because of social distancing regulations, MGM has eight shows open at 50% capacity, including the David Copperfield and Jabbawockeez shows at MGM Grand, Carrot Top at Luxor and Thunder From Down Under at Excalibur. The Cirque shows will be by far the largest productions to reappear on the Strip.
“MGM Resorts is one of the top live entertainment companies in the world. In 2019, we did 9,000 shows and sold more than 9 million tickets,” Kliavkoff said. “Our single largest partner was Cirque du Soleil. The return of ‘O’ on July 1 is going to be a bellwether for the return of Las Vegas entertainment.”
Millions of international tourists traditionally visit Las Vegas every year, but those numbers are markedly down due to the pandemic. Lamarre said he expected the majority of ticket buyers initially would be domestic travelers.
“If you’re a U.S. citizen, you don’t have that many places to travel around the world, so if you want to entertain yourself after a year of confinement, the place to go is to Las Vegas,” he said. “My belief, short term [is], at least for a year, you will have more American citizens going to Vegas than international clients.”
The return of touring shows remains complicated because the COVID-19 situation varies from state to state in the U.S. and from country to country worldwide. Prior to the pandemic, Cirque tours reached more than 450 cities around the world each year.
“The U.S. market is going to be more important for us, more than normally, because it’s becoming every day a much safer market. I would think that in 2022 I wouldn’t be surprised if we had three touring shows touring in the U.S. because of the fact that it’s a much safer country,” he said. “The U.K. is also looking pretty good, and some others in Europe as well. We are monitoring all the other countries around the world to see what our options are.”
Cirque announced Wednesday that “Kooza” would open in November in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and “Luzia” will return to London’s Royal Albert Hall in January.
In Asia, Lamarre said, talks have begun to relaunch in Korea. “We might be going to Korea by the end of 2022, and if it’s the case, we’ll probably follow up with Japan,” he said. “Japan historically has always been an amazing country for us. When we tour in Japan, we tour there for about 18 months.”
Cirque is also working on setting a new opening date for “Drawn to Life,” its collaboration with Disney that was set to open in Orlando, Fla., last year. “It’s a tribute to Disney animation, and we felt honored to have the opportunity to do a show with the IP [intellectual property] of Disney,” Lamarre said. “We should be able to open sometime in the fall.”
Tickets for “O” and “Mystère” are expected to go on sale Wednesday. Blue Man Group tickets will go on sale beginning April 29. Ticket prices will remain around pre-COVID levels, Lamarre said, ranging from $69 to $125 for “Mystère” and $79 to $180 for “O.”
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