No question, Las Vegas long ago established itself as the entertainment capital of the world.
You love an arena concert or 18-city-block music festival? You’ll find ‘em there. Like sporting events with Hollywood-level opening ceremonies? Vegas has you covered. And if you want a mind-blowingly beautiful live show, this town’s stellar selection gives Broadway a run for its money.
Even when shows are iterations of productions that became famous somewhere else, Vegas versions are uniquely Vegas. Staging is bombastic and over the top. Actors always show more skin. And in recent years, across the board, the acrobatics have reached, ahem, incredible new heights (couldn’t even try to resist).
We’re not just talking tightrope and trapeze here, but death-defying acts of physical prowess. The kind of stunts and spectacles that make audiences throw themselves back in their seats, cover their mouths and squirm with delight. These are feats of derring-do you’ll remember through the haze of late-evening events that’s sure to follow.
The theatrical magic started when Vegas welcomed Cirque du Soleil, a French troupe that combined acrobatics with just about every circus style on Earth. Vegas’ first Cirque show, the landmark Mystère, opened in 1993 and continues to amaze at Treasure Island. Over the last 25 years, nearly a dozen other Cirque shows have followed. Vegas is now home to seven Cirque productions, along with a handful of other shows that have taken different spins (or leaps, as the case may be) on the Cirque approach. Here, how our favorite flying spectacles stack up.
7. Absinthe at Caesars Palace
The debut show from Spiegelworld, which started under the big top in front of Caesars Palace in 2011, is most definitely unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Think of it as a psychedelic Vaudeville variety show, or, to paraphrase The New York Times, a mashup of Cirque du Soleil and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The action begins as soon as you wander into the tent; characters in costume flit about and interact with audience members until the lights go dim. About 600 seats are arranged around a circular stage.
The show itself is a mix of burlesque, acrobatics, sideshow performers and other feats of derring-do. The Gazillionaire is the ringmaster/host, bringing from you from one act to the next. He also performs a bit of stand-up comedy, choosing individual audience members to chide. The most hilarious part comes when Wanda Widdles, a sort of assistant to the Gazillionaire, takes the stage and performs an act threaded with vulgarities.
“We set out to create a show that would give people an entertainment experience they would never get in their hometown and would be talking about for months,” says Ross Mollison, impresario extraordinaire (and producer) of the show. Absinthe adds new acts regularly, so you could watch it three times in one year and have a different experience each time.
It’s worth noting that Absinthe expanded its show calendar earlier this year and now is the only Vegas show that runs twice a night, seven nights a week. This means you can go and see it any time you’re in town. It also means there’s plenty of craziness to go around.
As the name of this fledgling Paris Las Vegas show suggests, the spectacle includes acrobatics plus fire. Lots of fire. So many pyrotechnics, in fact, it’s a wonder the stage doesn’t burn down every night. You can feel the heat from just about every seat.
But it isn’t fire for fire’s sake. Inferno incorporates pyrotechnics to extend and amplify the wonder of the acrobats, explains co-executive producer Michael Glover. This includes an aerial hoop act during which the hoops are on fire. Illusionist Joe Labero escapes from blazing fire. Then there’s the finale, during which one of the most skilled acrobats is suspended from her neck while pyrotechnics shoot from her body. At one point, wild waves of flames spread across the stage below.
Incorporating these explosives into an acrobatic performance requires serious precision. To accomplish this feat, Glover’s Phoenix Productions International, teamed up with Pyrotecnico FX, a company that has masterminded the world’s largest pyrotechnic displays—building fire sets for sporting events, musicians, and more. Coordinating this dangerous design element is a form of acrobatics in and of itself. The result bends the mind. “This much fire at once is something to be seen and not like any other show playing on the Strip,” says Glover.
Acrobatics look a bit different in Opium, a sci-fi/comedy variety show from an Australian theater troupe called Spiegelworld. They’re sillier. More intimate. They’re not nearly as bombastic and grandiose as you might find elsewhere. Part of this is out of necessity; the ceiling inside the theater at The Cosmopolitan is only 14-feet high, which means any jumping or flipping has to be relatively tame. According to Ross Mollison, impresario extraordinaire (and producer), Opium also embraces acrobatics differently because it emphasizes comedy over everything else. “You look at the scale of the great shows of Vegas and ours is a different beast,” he says. “We have 262 people in our audience. We’re playing to the strengths of the room.”
To keep the 90-minute show moving, Mollison and his buddies have broken the performance into what they consider to be 180 30-second intervals. The format guarantees that “no-one will take themselves too seriously,” Mollison says. It also means the on-stage experience changes constantly. One minute a character is performing jaw-dropping acrobatics involving tennis rackets. The next, another spins 20 hula hoops simultaneously. A live band jams throughout, and Opium’s staff peddles wacky, flavorful cocktails served in unusual vessels, such as giant robot cups. “We might not have tons of people doing flips,” Mollison says, “but we’re sure to flip your mind.”
The longest-running Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas turns 25 this year. To commemorate the anniversary, Cirque incorporated new projections, music, costumes, choreography and dancers. The company also refreshed the show with more extreme acrobatics on the teeterboard and daring acts such as duo straps.
On the surface, the show doesn’t have an obvious storyline, but Kathleen Renaud, senior artistic director for Mystère, The Beatles LOVE, and Michael Jackson ONE, says what the show lacks in narrative it makes up in theme. “It’s a show of evolution, progression, and of life,” she says. “The beauty is it incorporates dance and acrobatics to allow people to use their imagination as to what it’s all about.”
Because it’s been running so long, Mystère holds a number of fascinating distinctions. For starters, 86-year-old Brian Dewhurst is the oldest of the show’s 65 cast members, and the oldest performer in a Cirque show on the Vegas Strip. Guitarist Bruce Rickerd is the Cal Ripken, Jr., of Cirque bands, and has not missed a show in 25 years. This means he has played in more than 11,000 shows overall—a feat for which he has been celebrated in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Mystère is also one of the only Cirque shows with rehearsals open to the public. Every Saturday 3-3:30 p.m., fans line up to get into the Mystère Theater and watch cast members as they rehearse for that evening’s performance. Rehearsal visitors also get an exclusive ticket offer by presenting a special voucher from the open rehearsal at the box office.
Le Rȇve, performed at Wynn Las Vegas, features aquatic acrobatics, a high-dive and a heart-tugger of a plot line in which the heroine must choose between lust and love. It all adds up to an aesthetically and emotionally riveting show.
Exhibit A: The part Rick Gray, general manager of entertainment operations, calls “Splash.” The segment begins with a male performer pounding out a pommel horse routine in a shimmering, shallow pool of water. The act is masculine and brutal and almost violent to watch, but gives way to a Flamenco-style dance—graceful and emotional and tense. “It’s a range of emotions in that one scene,” Gray explains. “That’s something you just don’t see in these types of shows anywhere else.”
Another differentiator for Le Rêve: VIP Packages. One offering, which starts at $175 per ticket, includes plush seating in a box boasting private screens that deliver live behind-the-scenes footage as the show unfolds. Another, starting around $1,900 per ticket, gives 2-4 audience members nightly the chance to don SCUBA gear and watch from underwater.
On the surface, ONE is a tribute to the King of Pop, a 90-minute paean to Michael Jackson that comprises recorded versions of “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and more. Go deeper, however, and the newest Cirque show, in conjunction with the Michael Jackson Estate and written and directed by famed Jamie King, is an elaborate mashup of dance and acrobatics.
Senior Artistic Director Renaud says the troupe achieves this sensation with a mix of sensory overload, pumping music that literally shakes your bones. The delivery method: Each of the theatre’s 1,804 seats has three speakers—left, right, and center—for a total of 5,412 seat speakers. “The music is intentionally quite loud—it finds you inside,” she explains. “We wanted people to feel they were part of a rock concert.”
Performed at Mandalay Bay, ONE has three distinct signature moments. The first hits during “Thriller,” which features an intense trampoline act with airborne zombies. In “Dirty Diana,” the pole artist dons a costume embellished with more than 7,000 crystals. The final signature moment arrives during “Man in the Mirror,” when Jackson’s likeness emerges, drawing cheers (and some tears). Given the song’s theme of kindness and making a difference, Jackson’s message is more important now than ever.
The original water show in Vegas, performed at Bellagio, is about humans using their bodies to defy logic. Like the scene where performers jump from 60 feet above the stage into a 17-feet deep triangular section of a pool. Or fire artist Ray Wold burning for three-and-a-half minutes as he sits nonchalantly in a chair. Cirque du Soleil went so far as to invent a contraption for gymnastic superstars to flip on parallel bars that hang 40 feet above the “O” “stage.”
For Senior Artistic Director Pierre Parisien, all these acts hinge on the strength of their performers. Six of the 77-member cast have participated in the Olympic Games, and all have spent decades sharpening their craft. “The show’s longevity has to do with our artists,” he says. “They are talented acrobats who can add emotions to the mix.”
This fusing of physical prowess and feeling is on full display during two pinnacle points in the performance. In a segment revolving around Russian swings, performers launch up to 20 feet into the air, pose with a flourish at the apex, then land gracefully into the pool below. Later, when “O” breaks out the trapeze, an artist rides the bar while upside-down on her head. You might think you’re hallucinating. But it’s real. And it’s glorious. And it’s Vegas through and through.