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April 21, 2014

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The great trick for ‘Zarkana’ is to remain unique in a sea of Cirque

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Founders say it’s a mistake to refer to Zarkana as a more elaborate sampler platter of what we’ve already seen from Cirque. But it sure looks like “Cirque at its Cirquest.”

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  • Cirque music master Nick Littlemore
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'Zarkana': Red Carpet and Show at Aria

Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

'Zarkana' at Aria

Launch slideshow »
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Behind the scenes of Zarkana in November 2012.

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Sand artist Vira Syvorotkina in Zarkana in November 2012.

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Behind the scenes of Zarkana in November 2012.

Several weeks ago, during one of the tours of Radio City Music Hall to unearth the secrets of “Zarkana,” a Cirque du Soleil official mentioned that this was a pure Cirque show, not a tribute to “dead artists.”

The company needed a “Get Back” effort in Las Vegas, borrowing from the title of a Beatles song during the band’s return-to-rock period. A return to form, as it were.

“Zarkana” is that effort, a beautiful, daring and forceful reminder that the core of “Cirque” is circus. By way of comparison, this show fits far better at Zarkana Theater than it did at Radio City Music Hall, stuffing the Aria venue with colorful, exotic scenes and the thundering score by Nick Littlemore. The lead of Cirque’s only rock opera, Paul Bisson as the magician Zark, struts around the stage like he owns it and enforces the language-exclusive lyrics in a powerful, growling voice.

There were some moments when the performers were a bit unsteady on the spindles, expected in the first week of a show in an unfamiliar venue. But “Zarkana” is the best-of compilation, remastered for the old Viva Elvis Theater, that Cirque has promised (read my Las Vegas Weekly cover story about the show). The set pulsates with images real and projected to the point where you cannot discern between the two. Many moments are simply but brilliantly executed, such as the juggler who works with a half-dozen balls and the sand artist working from an ornate light table whose images glow in a blue hue from the middle of the stage.

These are not acts constructed in the recent past. Many date back centuries but are given a robust upgrade by the Cirque team. Tightrope walkers duck a hanging sphere of fire. Trapeze artists soar three abreast, high above a catch net. The clowns joke around with an audience member (pretty obviously a plant, from my vantage point, and subsequently the ubiquitous Robin Leach has reported the woman to be "iCarly" star Jennette McCurdy) and an electric chair. The contemporary twist is when one of those big-shoed shtick masters is fired from a cannon across the theater, disrobing in a twisted striptease while the audience gazes skyward and laughs.

The Italian flag team takes a routine concept — waving multicolored flags — and makes it dazzling with the precision lofting of their props up to 20 feet high. The human pyramid performers are stacked four people high, walking gingerly across the stage. This was something of a throwback to “Viva Elvis!” So was the Wheel of Death, as the two sprinting performers danced across the giant effect and seemed, more than once, to be about to lose their balance and drop to the stage.

This show is solid Cirque, pretty and often overwhelming in its delivery. You could argue that it is the company’s attempt to overkill its presence in Las Vegas, the message being, “You want a sure thing? Take this!” It is like ordering a dessert and having the waiter drop a wedding cake on your table as he smiles and says, “Enjoy!” The show is Cirque’s grandest production and busiest tenant, having played in Madrid, Moscow and New York.

The crew says this is the theater best suited to stage “Zarkana,” and the MGM Resorts folks say the show is a better match to its clientele than was “Viva Elvis.” The difference is the “Zark” fans who have seen the production elsewhere are seen to be more avant-garde. But the most pressing and pertinent questions are whether Cirque can fill that 1,800-seat theater consistently, which Elvis never did, while continuing to feed customers to the six other Cirque shows on the Strip. If you’re putting out the “best-of” Cirque production, what does that mean to such shows as “Mystere,” “Ka” and “O”? What do you say to a magic fan making a decision between “Zarkana” and “Believe,” which is fronted by an actual big-scale illusionist, Criss Angel?

It will take some intelligent and aggressive marketing to ensure that fans understand the distinction among these productions. They will continually remind that this is the first and only rock opera ever staged by Cirque, and the music helps make the sale. But to convey a compelling argument as to why you would need to see every Cirque show, over time, and appreciate them as unique experiences will be “Zarkana’s” greatest trick.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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