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October 23, 2017

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Photos: Night of triumph for Cirque’s ‘Zarkana’ at Aria becomes the toast of the town


Tom Donoghue/

The red carpet grand opening of Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana” at Aria on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012.

'Zarkana': Red Carpet and Show at Aria

Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

'Zarkana': Parties at Gold Lounge and Haze

Siegfried Fischbacher, Dot Jones and Roy Horn attend the premiere of Cirque du Solei's Launch slideshow »

Zarkana red carpet at Aria

Zarkana red carpet at Aria

Click to enlarge photo

Jennette McCurdy onstage during the premiere of Cirque du Solei's "Zarkana" in Aria on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012.

It was a night of triumph -- and comeback -- for Cirque du Soleil with the stunning premiere of its newest Las Vegas spectacle “Zarkana” on Friday evening at Aria.

“I feel as if a 2,000-pound weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” Cirque President Daniel Lamarre told me while beaming at the first-night standing ovation and long applause.

Daniel also was celebrating the same-day news that Cirque’s Michael Jackson “Immortal” had been named best touring musical arena show of 2012, and he’d given it a new two-year-extension to run past 2014. Currently in Scandinavia, “Immortal” will move onto Asia and Australia and then return to several previously sold-out U.S. and European cities.

It was a night of vindication as the failure of Cirque’s “Viva Elvis” at Aria was forgotten. “Elvis” premiered on Feb. 19, 2010, and closed this past Aug. 31 after disappointing ticket sales and low audience attendance. It was the first show to be shuttered in the French Canadian company’s 20-plus years.

“Absolutely fantastic,” said MGM CityCenter chief Bobby Baldwin, who brought the magical, acrobatic “Zarkana” to Aria to replace “Elvis.” It was a night of well-deserved congratulations all around. Aria’s chefs agreed. “God bless Zarkana,” one told me. “The show will fill our restaurants and boost our hotel business.”

It was a night of joy and newfound fame for actor Paul Bisson, last seen as Quasimodo in 1999 at the Paris Las Vegas’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” He plays the lead role of Zark without speaking one word of English.

“The audience doesn’t get lost trying to follow our story while being dazzled by the acrobatics onstage. They can create their own story subconsciously within our show. It sounds crazy, but it really works,” Paul told me in our interview posted Oct. 31.

After nine days of previews and one dress rehearsal for Cirque founder Guy Laliberte alone, “Zarkana” was the toast of the town. At the premiere, many agreed that it is Cirque’s most extraordinary Strip creation. The $55 million marvel, Cirque’s largest show investment, was created for New York’s Radio City Music Hall, then went on to success in Moscow and Madrid, selling more than 1.5 million tickets.

When conflicts of biographical storytelling and acrobatics surfaced with “Elvis,” MGM execs and Cirque officials agreed that it made no sense to overhaul it or create a new show that would take years to build. They had a choice of “Zarkana” or “Zed” in Japan, which closes partly because of the tsunami. (Some “Zed” cast members are now in “Mystere” at Treasure Island.)

Bobby flew to New York, met with Guy and Daniel and was so bowled over by “Zarkana,” he immediately agreed that plans should be made for it to run at CityCenter when its New York shows ended in September. “We made up our minds before the intermission,” Bobby said.

Guy, who was on a long-planned month retreat in Hawaii with bike rides and giving up smoking, sent greetings and congratulations, and his top Montreal execs joined MGM maestros on the red carpet and in celebration afterward at a party at nearby Haze.

Celebrities and VIPs added to the glamour and excitement: Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”), Francis Ford Coppola, Matt Lanter (“90210”), Dot Jones (“Glee”), Harry Shum Jr. (“Glee”), Edi Gathegi (“Twilight”), DJ Ashba (Guns N’ Roses), Mark Foster (Foster the People), Luxor headliner Criss Angel, Omar Benson Miller (“CSI: Miami”), Luxor headliner Carrot Top, Siegfried & Roy, “Zarkana” director and writer Francois Girard and composer and music director Nick Littlemore.

Also spotted: “Top Chef” Season 10 cheftestant Carla Pellegrino (Bratalian, Meatball Spot), chef Andre Rochat (Alize, Andre’s), Claire Sinclair and MGM Grand President Scott Sibella telling me that his nightclub Hakkasan will blow away Las Vegas when it opens in the spring. More on that next week!

MGM chefs who created the 12 food stations included Julian Serrano, Michael Mina’s American Fish, Sirio Maccioni’s Sirio, Jean Georges Vongerichten’s steakhouse, Shawn McLain from Sage and Steve Cohen from Joel Robuchon’s

L’Atelier. Our thanks to contributing photographer Tom Donoghue for his photo galleries and to Chris Rauschnot of 24KMedia on Twitter for his YouTube videos.

In typical Cirque fashion, one audience member was pulled onstage by “Zarkana’s” clowns during the Electric Chair act. Jennette McCurdy, star of Nickelodeon’s “iCarly,” was chosen for the cameo. As we walked up the aisle together post-show, she told me, “That was ridiculously awesome. A total shock and so much fun. This was a fabulous show even without my surprise!”

At the party, Nick, who had been asked by Sir Elton John to compose “Zarkana’s” music, told me: “Elton simply said, ‘Congratulations. Superb.’ It couldn’t be better when he first heard the show in its entirety. He still hasn’t been able to see it first hand, though. His travel schedule and ‘Zarkana’s’ dates never coincided, but when he returns to Las Vegas in February, seeing the show is the first item on his schedule.”

We’ll have our one-on-one interviews with Nick and technical director Dave Churchill next week. On Monday, we’ll post my interview with Daniel and reveal some preliminary secrets of the next Cirque production, the May arrival of the Michael Jackson residency at Mandalay Bay.

Meantime, “Zarkana” is beyond sensational. All shows this month are sellouts, and going forward they are already hitting 97 percent occupancy.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Daniel told me at Haze. “We never wanted to let our corporate partner MGM down. I think everybody is saying we came up with the very best show Cirque has ever done. J’agree -- an incredible premiere!”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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