Film producers put out dozens of films. But rarely are their works compared to each other, or expected to live up to a standard established by its predecessor. So why do we do that with Cirque du Soleil shows, specifically their Las Vegas creations?
Oh, sure, the first wave of original, non-linear, mega-circus productions such as Mystère and O feature trademark vibrant costumes, mind-blowing artistry and awe-inspiring sets, all wrapped in a sense of whimsy and wonder orchestrated by their creator, director Franco Dragone. Dragone left Cirque to form his own entertainment group, and since then, the company’s subsequent shows (such as Kà and Zumanity) have diverged from what the general public perceives as the established Cirque status quo, when in fact, they’ve diverged from the Dragone standard.
Since then, Cirque has entered into collaborations for its Vegas shows that have been of, well, questionable success. With The Beatles LOVE, the company produced a much-loved, critically lauded show that even spawned a Grammy-winning soundtrack album. That show stays true to the “traditional” spirit of Cirque du Soleil, never letting either the vague biographical story of the Beatles or the circus performances feel forced. Of course, maybe the Beatles’ eclectic music was always destined for the circus.
On the other hand, Criss Angel: Believe has been … less enthusiastically received. Blame the lack of magic, blame the creepy rabbits, blame Criss Angel’s own lack of charisma and general douchebaggery — whatever it is, Believe proves that not everything graced by the Cirque du Soleil name turns to gold. Or even bronze.
Hence, we come to Cirque’s latest collaboration, Viva ELVIS, which — in case you couldn’t figure it out or have been held hostage from the internet lately — loosely tells the story of Elvis Presley’s life through song, dance and trampoline tricks. On its own, ignoring the Cirque du Soleil name, Viva ELVIS is an adequate, enjoyable musical, featuring an integrated, energetic live band performing along with Elvis’ vocal tracks, enhanced by live singers. It’s a whitewashing of Elvis’ career, of course, leaving out all the ugly parts about drug addiction, affairs and, oh yeah, getting fat and dying. And it’s narrated by an actor portraying Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ notoriously manipulative and corrupt manager who, here, appears as a genial carnival barker.
So what makes it a Cirque show? There are kitschy, giant set pieces, such as a blue suede shoe, a guitar and a wedding cake, and acrobats performing feats of derring-do upon them. There is a fun but totally out-of-context trampoline segment. There are aerialists and colorful costumes and creepy plastic Elvis wigs. But unlike The Beatles LOVE — and yes, I’m going to compare here, because these are both Cirque-spawned shows based on the music and lives of giant rock stars — Viva ELVIS lacks that, well, certain je ne sais quoi that makes LOVE so fantastic. There’s no emotional investment. No build-up. No surprises or small, touching moments. It’s just all flashy showmanship, all the time, and even then, some scenes went on too long and could not maintain entertainment value.
Viva ELVIS feels more like the Broadway version of Hairspray, if you removed characters for whom we care about, a storyline we can follow or a genuine feeling of nostalgia. If you just purely love Elvis’ music, and dig musical theater, it may be right up your alley. But if you’re expecting the otherworldly, transcendental experience of earlier Cirque shows, your money’s best spent on a discounted ticket to Mystère.