The other city that never sleeps, Las Vegas, offers up a theatrical mélange the likes of which can be found in no other place on earth. It is a mix of the stunning and the salacious, the tacky and the spectacular, the weird and the weirder. And it's all big, big, BIG! Here, TheaterMania presents an introduction to this wild world.
The Hot Ticket
It is a tribute to the static nature of Las Vegas theater that, three years after opening, the multi-million dollar smash O is still considered the hot, new show in town. Cirque du Soleil's latest production takes place in a specially built theater at the Bellagio, equipped with a large pool for the performers to display their water-based acrobatics. A true marvel, O deserves its reputation, inspiring a constant stream of ohs and ahs from rapt audiences.
The big-budget effects of EFX Alive don't provide the pure theatrical magic of Cirque, but if explosions, 3D effects, gigantic set pieces, and rock stars are your thing, this is the show for you. EFX, which first opened with The Phantom of the Opera's Michael Crawford as its star, tailors itself to each new performer that takes over as the "EFX Master." Currently, '70s-'80s pop icon Rick Springfield presides over this oddly arranged tribute to visionaries like P.T. Barnum and H.G. Wells. In between rock ballads and dramatic scenes such as Springfield (as Merlin) battling the witch Morgana and Springfield (as Harry Houdini) doing daring tricks, there is a kind of "acoustic Rick" segment where he performs abbreviated versions of his hit songs, such as "Jessie's Girl" and...whatever other hits he may have had.
If you didn't get your fill of Cirque du Soleil with O (or if you simply couldn't get tickets), the troupe has another big hit on the Strip: Mystère, just as impressive as its aquatic counterpart, showcases the group's mastery at clowning and gymnastics. And, unlike virtually every other big show in Vegas, this one uses real audience participation to get the viewers in on the fun, rather than resorting to the use of phony plants and scripted interaction.
The Tournament of Kings is a recreation of the Vegas-style entertainment of a bygone era: a jousting competition. Knights on horseback do battle, and wizards and dragons make appearances as well, in this medieval dinner theater show at the Camelot-themed Excalibur Hotel. At less than $40, this is one of the more reasonably-priced shows in town. And they feed you, too!
Only in Vegas
He's really not famous anywhere else, yet he's the star of the Vegas Strip: Danny Gans, the man of 1,000 voices. This actor-singer-impressionist continues to draw audiences the way slot-machines draw tourists--move over, Rich Little! You can find him at the Danny Gans Theatre at The Mirage.
The high priests of Las Vegas entertainment for some 30 years now, Siegfried and Roy do put on quite a show. Indeed, it's a strange show, including indecipherable dramatics involving clone-like Neanderthal men, scantily clad dancers, a gargantuan dragon, and a wicked witch. But the stars themselves turn out to be an amusing pair, and nothing says entertainment like stupefying magic tricks and cuddly white tigers.
Another Vegas stalwart, Wayne Newton is the king of the lounge act. He's been a regular feature here since his teen years, and he continues to perform at the Wayne Newton Theatre at the Stardust Hotel & Casino 40 weeks a year. A stylistically versatile singer and a real charmer, Newton is an audience favorite and remains an emblem of the quintessential Las Vegas.
Vegas was made famous by some of the legendary entertainers who used to perform here. Paying tribute to them, or just capitalizing off their names (you be the judge), are various acts presenting some of the most dead-on impersonators around. At the Elvis-a-Rama Museum (yep, that's what it's called), there are Elvis Presley impersonators both young and old, reminding audiences why he was called The King. If you want to spend the night with more than one star, Legends in Concert (at the Imperial Palace Hotel) and American Superstars (at the Stratosphere) offer up The Beatles, Cher, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Garth Brooks, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ricky Martin, and many other look-alikes in live concerts.
Like all major markets, Las Vegas also attracts big Broadway touring shows. The city's Broadway series is generally pretty thin, but this year's included heavy-hitters like Rent and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts at the Aladdin Hotel and Casino accommodates these shows, each of which generally plays for about a week.
Before Vegas entertainment sought to be more friendly to families and female viewers, it was all about the showgirls. One of the longest running of these shows is Jubilee, which, in addition to its kick line of topless beauties, recreates the sinking of the Titanic and Samson's destruction of the Temple. La Femme, one of the classier nudie shows, is a recent import from Paris that uses color and light to sumptuous effect. For a more old-fashioned showgirl show with feathered costumes and big production numbers, check out Folies Bergere, Vegas's oldest Parisian-themed topless revue. Of course, if girls don't do it for you, Chippendales: The Show has a small army of ridiculously good looking and well built men who appear nightly in a fantasia of pulsing music, suggestive choreography, and human spectacle.
If you want to experience the flash of the above named entertainments without getting flashed, check into the early evening shows: Some of them aren't as fleshy as their late-night counterparts.
Local Theater Companies
By now in this overview, you might be lamenting the dearth of real drama in Las Vegas. With the exception of the occasional premiere of a new work (the English language version of the French musical Notre Dame de Paris is a recent example), the city has not yet distinguished itself in the realm of original, professionally produced drama. However, many locals appreciate the active community and professional theaters just outside the Vegas Strip for providing the emotional heft or light comic touch of smaller scale plays and musicals.
Voted Best Theatre Company in Las Vegas for three years in a row by CityLife News and Culture Weekly, the Nevada Theatre Company is enjoying its fourth season in Las Vegas. Past productions have included You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Charles Busch's bizarre comic spoof Psycho Beach Party; the company's current show is called Verboten Vegas. A professional troupe, NTC also has an educational outreach program called Books Alive! that takes kids' favorites like Ramona Quimby to the stages of local public schools.
The Las Vegas Little Theatre, a community group now in its 24th season, brings to locals the works of celebrated playwrights such as David Mamet, Christopher Durang, and Terrence McNally, along with classics like Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and The Lion in Winter. LVLT also has a late-night play series called "Midnight Snacks" and offers weekly acting workshops for aspiring performers.
The non-profit Jade Productions has been offering annual seasons of performances including musical revues and dramas since 1995. Meanwhile, Theatre in the Valley often presents lesser-known dramas and comedies like this year's The Boys Next Door and next season's production of Richard Rodgers's Two By Two.
Some of the most varied and intriguing fare in the city comes from the theater department of the local college, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. These folks present impressive seasons of classics (Of Mice and Men), musicals (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), recent Broadway dramas (The Beauty Queen of Lenane), Shakespeare (The Comedy of Errors), intellectual theater both newer (Top Girls) and older (Machinal), and even premieres courtesy of the school's own MFA Playwriting Program.
The university is also home to the UNLV Performing Arts Center, a beautiful venue that hosts concerts by such high-profile visiting performers as Mandy Patinkin and Linda Eder.
Old Favorites and Newcomers
' Tina's Wedding, the popular interactive dinner theater piece that feeds the audience an Italian meal and invites them to a comical wedding, is one of Vegas's newest attractions. The show has visited here before, but this is its first open-ended, sitdown engagement.
Blue Man Group, also new to the area but very well known elsewhere, has created some additional, dazzling segments to beef up the show for the spectacle-hungry Vegas crowd.
Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance, a staple of the touring circuit, currently has a place on the Strip at the New York, New York casino but is scheduled to close on July 28 to make way for--you guessed it!--a third Cirque du Soleil show.
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O is burning up the box office (Photo: John Guzinski)