It’s what I recently preached about being a critic, that keeping an open mind and looking at the familiar with a fresh eye for the unexpected is what it’s all about. The Beatles’ LOVE, the long-running Cirque du Soleil extravaganza that has successfully metamorphosed the Mirage Hotel from being all about overmarketed white tigers into becoming the host one of the most groundbreaking musical collaborations of all time, has recently been “updated”—sometimes a dirty word in Las Vegas.
I returned to see LOVE for the third time over the holidays with some trepidation, since I have what I’d like to think is a personal history with the show. When it first premiered back in 2006, I was given access to the machinations of creating the show. I was in groupie heaven, able to hang around backstage watching rehearsals and getting to know the artists. I spoke with two amazing “Sirs,” the Beatles’ producer George Martin and, on opening night, Paul McCartney himself.
In awe, I observed the down-to-the-wire refining of Philippe Guillotel’s now-famous period-shouting costuming, then interviewed prop goddess Patricia Ruhl and puppet mastermind Michael Curry (also responsible for the Cirque’s magnificent KA down the street at the MGM Grand and The Lion King on Broadway). Why, I even got to enjoy a memorable “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” experience with an unearthly beautiful server I met at the opening night party.
The reworked current version of LOVE is in many ways simplified, which is surprisingly not a bad thing. It now seems less about the spectacle and more about the music and what is evokes in us. For some reason, I heard the gossamer lyrics of John and Paul as clearly this time as if they were onstage reciting their game-changing urban poetry and, oddly, the signature wonders of the Cirque took a respectful backseat for me to what these guys had to say about the world from the perspective of a half-century past. Prophetic, so much of it—and sadly, so little has been heeded or has changed about our fucked-up species since they first introduced their inspirational classic tunes.
Granted, I have been a Beatles fan since my friend brought the White Album over to my house in the fall of 1968 after standing in line overnight waiting for it to be released, an event that stretched from one “enhanced” morning into the next and made me fall deeply in thrall with the Fab Four and their ever-evolving music for the first time as the fireplace in my living room melted onto the floor.
Now, all these years later, my partner whispered to me, as he sat open-jawed watching the wonders of LOVE for the first time, “It’s like dropping acid again.” Close. Really close. For me, however, what it made me recall even stronger was that opening night in the summer of 2006 when it all unfolded before me for the first time. Truly, though almost 12 years ago, I saw it all so vividly it Felt like it had all happened about 18 months ago.
During that week dragging myself through the sweltering Vegas summer, my first glimpse into what would become a legendary production took place in the bowels of the Mirage where Siegfried and Roy once housed their lions and tigers before and after performances. It was complete with ominous scratch marks remaining along the hallway and remnants of the bolts that once fastened their cages in place still visible on the walls, but now acrobats soared to the high ceiling of the room on long vertical ropes while rehearsing for the much-anticipated opening of Cirque’s fifth permanent Vegas attraction.
Unlike those overly trained and obviously unhappy white-striped beasts of yore, helpless to say whether they wanted to be there or not all those years, these newly arrived airborne human artisans had been rehearsing for months—and not just to learn how to soar like Lucy in the Sky. In keeping with the “Here Comes the Sun” number, the performers honored a song written when the Beatles were into their metaphysical-transcendental stage by fiercely researching and diligently studying a mix of yoga techniques and Eastern Indian dance. Whether or not they tried a couple of tabs of Clear Light to understand the mood and atmosphere of that colorful era lost in time, they didn’t say.
Let’s just say commitment among the huge cast, as well as the multitude of backstage artists and technicians pushing the LOVE payroll to about 200, was a given—and obviously still is over a decade later. Bowing at every turn to the Beatles’ groundbreaking sound, the Cirque and MGM International joined forces with Apple Music to stage this still magical mystery tour, miraculously engineering new life into some of the 20th century’s most enduring music—and still keeping it alive and well all these years later.
In the process, they shaped a musical revolution of sorts by bringing together the brilliance of the most imaginative and successful composers of the last century with the most innovative troupe of performance artists working anywhere today, a formula that subsequently did them well with Viva Elvis, which opened the Aria there in 2010, and Michael Jackson ONE, currently playing still at Mandalay Bay. It’s a given that the Cirque reinvented this bizarre town over the past quarter-century since Mystere took the infamous desert oasis by storm in 1993. Wayne Newton has never been the same.
The original opening festivities were overshadowed by the presence of Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, as well as Sir Paul, who answered all questions rather dourly and barely venturing past one syllable, and his only other remaining bandmate, the newly elevated Sir Ringo Starr. Still, the most incredible part of covering the event was meeting and talking to the late-great George Martin, the then-octogenarian producer of all the Beatles’ albums and co-musical director of LOVE with his son Giles.
Working for two years on this project, Sir George admitted that night it was thrilling even for him. Not content with creating a retrospective or tribute show, the Martins insisted instead on bringing to each of the 2,013 audience members the personal experience of being in a small recording studio listening to the music for the first time.
In their sound studio high above the stage, an exact replica of Abbey Road Studios (“So much so we felt like laboratory hamsters whenever we moved something,” he admitted), the Martins practiced their signature sorcery. “Our mission was to try and achieve the same intimacy we get when listening to the master tapes at the studio,” he proudly explained. “The songs sound so alive. A lot of people listen to the Beatles in a conventional way—radio, MP3 player or car, for example—but never in such a space as this.”
Creating a kind of directional panoramic mode in the theatre-in-the-round by embedding two speakers in the back of every seat, the sounds of LOVE engulf and envelope the audience, achieving, as Sir George believed, “a real sense of drama with the music, [making] the audience feel as though they are actually in the room with the band.”
This is made more unique since the master tapes utilized were not designed for a record, not mined from the old classic albums or concert performances, but cut during the boys’ stints in the studio making small promotional films. Often featuring improvised quips as they goofed off and joked casually with one another, the final mix offers, as Sir George reasoned to me with infectious, childlike enthusiasm, “such an immediate sound… not ‘muffly’ like with so many shows in rooms this size.”
And today even more than before, unlike any Cirque du Soleil production before it, LOVE is a spirited and colorful homage of the era in which The Beatles soared—and the designers and creators did everything in their power (and they have a lot of resources from which to draw) to revive that global phenomenon known in my lost youth as Beatlemania. Beginning with real live Nowhere Men shuffling alone onto the stage to reluctantly visit a modest “Nowhere Land,” four scrim-obscured sides of the 360-degree experience soon lift grandly into a brave new world.
Acrobats scale ropes leading from a deep smoking pit around the stage to the riggings high above, twirling around the dismal scene of WWII-torn Liverpool, the exact time when John Lennon was born during the last Blitz. As brick walls burst and four small mop-topped children cower in their beds, the chillingly omniscient voices of the Beatles fill the enormous space to harmonize their glorious a cappella classic tune “Because.” Many of the Beatles’ characters are present onstage, including Eleonor Rigby, Father McKenzie, Sgt. Pepper, Lady Madonna, Mr. Kite, and the Walrus, as the chronology of the Beatles’ music journeys from the early eager goofy enthusiasm, through the drug-enhanced and meditation eras, and on to a spectacular finale of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The 90-minute ride is like nothing anyone has ever seen before, thanks to the creators’ ability to make it all alternately imposing yet surprisingly intimate. Populated not only with typical Cirque aerialists and gymnasts but with street performers, ballet artists, hip-hoppers, tap and break dancers, some originally pulled right off the curb who’d never been onstage show before, there could not be a greater or more devoted homage to the colossal talents of the Beatles than LOVE.
Theatre and set designer Jean Rabesse was given a totally blank blueprint schematic of the former Siegfried and Roy stage and told to do whatever he wanted—a designer’s dream. Like the Martins, Rabesse wanted to go, he told me in 2006, inside the "universe of the 1960s" beginning in the lobby itself, and thought the idea of creating a black box recording studio feeling “was a natural” to put the audience in the studio with the band. A lot of what he created was conjured in computerized 3-D: “Other shows work with models and drawings,” he explained, “but this one had to be seen as a POV from every seat and all angles.” This result, he suggested, is that one needs to come back “four to 10 times to see everything,” bringing a hint of the original three-ring roots of the circus to mind—again, thankfully, without imprisoning and domesticating wild animals.
Augmenting the inspiration of LOVE’s conceptual creator Guy Laliberte, who first conjured the idea for the production while hanging with his bud, the late-great Saint George (Harrison) himself, are incredible video projections fabricated by Francis Laporte, who admitted to me behind the scenes in his own studio that a scant two years ago he never would have had the tools to achieve the heights of visual wonder he did with LOVE. Utilizing mostly unearthed promotional films featuring the Beatles at their most relaxed, his aim was to be as timeless as possible. This is apparent in a spectacular mounting of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as projected letters of the alphabet float down, projected across screens from above. “We wanted the feeling of words falling,” explained Laporte, “like a dream falling apart.”
Asked about the inclusion of four children depicted without faces wearing plastic Beatles mob-headed helmets reminiscent of Devo, director-writer Dominic Champagne’s ability to conjure a personal connection with the bandmembers becomes apparent. “Remember, John Lennon was the most famous man on the planet after Jesus Christ back then,” he explained just before opening night.
The Beatles were back then as puzzled by their own rampant fame as anyone else, making them feel almost invisible within the claustrophobic confines of their own celebrity. This emphasis is also visible in the presence of one lost Chaplin-like Nowhere Man, whose presence is meant to reflect the loss of freedom and personal space Lennon was experiencing when he referred to himself as a ‘nowhere man.’ “You know, for any of us,” said Champagne with a grin, “all we need is love.”
The scariest thing for me sitting among the first people to see LOVE was the audience dotted with ancient gray and white heads reminiscent of a group of subscribers gathered for opening night of some old musical warhorse at La Mirada Civic. My immediate thought, as the walls themselves came alive with the sound of Beatles’ music cranked to full volume, was that the usual Vegas audiences might not appreciate the decibel level.
And not much has changed. Footlong margaritas still in hand and wearing what Rita Rudner once quipped to me where clothes that make her want to go up to them and say, “Excuse me, but what are you thinking?,” the minute the sounds of John, Paul, Ringo and John’s vocals filled the huge auditorium, all those gray and white heads came alive, bopping and weaving like psychedelicized flower children just as we did 50 years ago. Those ancient heads, you see, were my contemporaries, something that made me want to go back to my suite, melt into the pillowtop mattress, and pull the covers over my own rapidly-graying head.
But after partying the night away at that original opening bash, toe-to-toe with the performers and artisans of LOVE break dancing ‘til nearly dawn, I realized back then what a remarkable impact my generation has made on the world in general and the future of music in particular.
As my students continually quiz me about my days touring in Hair, booking the Troubadour in its artistic heyday, or working for Jim Morrison and The Doors, their adoration for my era is obvious, not like when we Boomers were kids, listening with moderate curiosity as our parents waxed nostalgic about swinging to Tommy Dorsey or listening to Rosemary Clooney warbling about the cost of doggies in the window.
There was nothing wrong with those simpler days that also bravely paved the way for my generation's own historic musical emergence, but it was nothing like what we accomplished in the late 60s and early 70s before disco strip-mined the experience, bringing with us sounds that laid the groundwork for the unstoppable musical freedom of today.
For all those yunguns’ who worship our Boomer-years youth, you should; there was nothing like it for those of us who somehow managed to survive it. And in the last dozen years, there’s still nowhere to absorb that experience better than by heading to the Mirage to let your mind soar and your body groove to the wonder of the Beatles as though discovering them for the first time, reverently recreated and celebrated in LOVE, the best Cirque du Soleil production in their amazing 33-year career revolutionizing entertainment as we once knew it.