Special Report

LASVEGAS,P.Q.

Quebecers are rewriting the book on entertainment in Sin City Sex still sells-but think eros, not sleaze.

BENOIT AUBIN October 6 2003
Special Report

LASVEGAS,P.Q.

Quebecers are rewriting the book on entertainment in Sin City Sex still sells-but think eros, not sleaze.

BENOIT AUBIN October 6 2003

LASVEGAS,P.Q.

Special Report

Quebecers are rewriting the book on entertainment in Sin City Sex still sells-but think eros, not sleaze.

BENOIT AUBIN

ON THE STAGE OF THE NEWEST THEATRE IN LAS VEGAS, two beautiful, athletic young men, one white, one black, both almost nude, dance a tango that looks at times like a street fight and at others like a nuptial dance—and ends in a passionate embrace. In another number, a couple of gymnasts play out the Kama Sutra to dramatic effect—just after two apparently bare-breasted young contortionists had done their number in a giant fishbowl.

Oh me, oh my! Is this really Las Vegas, the puritanical Sin City where women sport red

stars for nipples? Vegas, the gambling haven where sex is a sinful commodity sold in sleazy “gentlemen’s clubs,” or by throngs of new immigrants from Central America lining the Strip, shoving pictures of their “sisters” in the faces of passing tourists?

Yep, it’s Las Vegas all right, only with a twist: Las Vegas, P.Q.

Zumanity, Cirque du Soleil’s newest offering, was conceived and developed in Montreal before being crated and shipped to Las Vegas just a few weeks ago. It’s a cabaret show, the Cirque’s first venture outside its traditional one-ring circus format, and it was a bit of a gamble too: Zumanity is all about seduction, artful eroticism, and risqué forays into gay, lesbian and S&M kink. But it’s beautiful, and fun, too, and even before its official launch on Sept. 20, the show had generated a global buzz and triggered pressing business inquiries from Paris and Berlin.

The fact that a bunch of bold and crazy artists and producers from Quebec would dare rewrite the book on how Las Vegas sees and sells sex and seduction—as art and clean fun instead of sin and sleaze—has been taken in stride here. It’s what the crazy Canucks with the funny French accent have been doing here ever since Mystère, Cirque du Soleil’s first Vegas production, hit town 10 years ago, never to leave again.

IN THE TOPSY-TURVY world of Las Vegas, the apex of stardom lies somewhere below ground. Celine Dion’s private dressing room in the bowels of the Colosseum—the US$95million, 4,000-seat theatre custom-built for

her amid the sprawling casinos of Caesars Palace—looks more like a windowless luxury condo. It’s all dark wood, fresh flowers and tan leather, with private and formal dining rooms, salons and boudoirs, offices, a spa, a gym, and a kitchen where a chef cooks something teriyaki while the singer has her hair done in the dressing room. René Angelil, Dion’s husband-producer, drinks Perrier from a crystal tumbler while fielding queries from a flurry of employees, all speaking French. “Yes, I guess you can say we rewrote the book,” he says in his raspy voice. “We certainly raised the boom for anyone who wants to produce such a show.”

Dion will cash in a cool US$100 million over three years to sing in her stateof-the-art theatre—flawless acoustics, slanted stage, rocking seats, no orchestra pit, and North America’s largest indoor LED video screen—designed by Montreal-based Scéno Plus. What really sets her show apart? It was directed by Franco Dragone, of Cirque du Soleil fame. Dragone has incorporated a good deal of the Cirque’s trademark wow: 40 dancers, stage acrobatics, stunts, fabulous costumes and technical wizardry. “This couldn’t have been produced on Broadway or in London,” Angelil says. “They don’t have the space, the money, the clientele for a show of this magnitude.” Dragone—who split from the Cirque,

along with a smattering of executives and producers, in 1998—has a bright future ahead of him. He’s designing a new show for the next biggest thing due to hit Las Vegas: Steve Wynn’s US$2-billion, ultra-extravagant hotel casino, set to open in 2005. Wynn is the legendary developer who brought the Cirque to Vegas.

But Cirque officials are not complaining about the competition: they’re locked into a lucrative agreement to provide entertainment for MGM Mirage which, with nine huge complexes and 43,000 employees, is the biggest resort operator in town. On top of Mystère, the water spectacle O, and Zumanity, the Cirque is cooking up a fourth show, to be directed by worldrenowned playwright Robert Lepage, scheduled to open next year. And it’s making plans to develop its own Cirque du Soleildesigned resort on the Strip.

AT THE FAR END of the Tuscan-themed Bellagio resort’s obscenely luxurious casino of marble, plush carpets, chandeliers, fresh flowers and gold accessories, a tall black man in a red jacket stands guard at a high door that marks the line where betting stops and big-time business begins. In an elegant suite of offices that looks like a prince’s palace, Terry Lanni, the CEO of MGM Mirage, has just one word to explain this very odd connection between French, northern, culturally distinct Montreal, and his own gaming empire in Nevada: “Guy.” That’s Guy Laliberté, 44, the elusive genius who, in 1984, turned the Cirque du Soleil from a bunch of student street performers amusing visitors in Baie St-Paul into the world’s most successful, fastest growing entertainment conglomerate. “Guy is a free spirit and as brilliant a person as I have ever met,” Lanni says. “His people can think outside the envelope, and we give them the artistic licence and the financial wherewithal.”

In downtown Las Vegas, the few structures still standing after 50 years are all duly

branded as historic or heritage sites. But what the city lacks in history, it makes up for in frantic pace of change. “Las Vegas has to constantly reinvent itself,” Lanni says, “if it wants its repeat customers to keep coming back.” In the ’50s, clever gangsters from California turned this quaint

desert oasis into an air-conditioned mirage of kitsch.

Vegas soon became Sin City at a time when sinful fun—sex, booze, gambling— was in very short supply in the fundamentalist, under-civilized American southwest. Then, Hollywood started sending its aging superstars—Elvis, Liberace, Sinatra—to die a slow death performing for an endless stream of brain-numbed pensioners high on shrimp cocktail sauce. After that came a Disney phase—complete with Treasure Island and pirate ships.

Today? Las Vegas is still capitalizing on the essential wisdom inherited from its mob founders—that the promise of easy fun and instant cash will always beat the certainty of a boring life of virtue and hard work for a pittance. But the form has evolved. Today, Vegas calls itself “an experience.”

MANHATTAN HAS ONE, Singapore has one too, but Las Vegas does not have a drink named in its honour. It’s surprising, since Vegas is the most branded and marketed city-package-product-experience-destination in the world. But then, the Vegas Dazzler

would have to be really something: extra tall, conspicuously expensive, with a lot of fizz and flashy weird colours, and strong enough to make you check your sanity at the gate. “Everybody comes here thinking they will be the exception to the odds, that they will own the city, that it will be called Smithsville once they are done with it,” says Joe, a cheery cabbie from Chicago. “The flights out of here are much more quiet.” From the air, the Las Vegas Strip looks like a little boy’s fantasy, with the world’s great landmarks, the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler building, a pyramid, the Colosseum, tossed together in a jumble by a fun-loving Godzilla with an eye for the quirky. This is where 36 million visitors a year—100,000 a day—come to be consenting captives, for 4.4 days on average, “experiencing” breakfast in Paris, lunch in Aladdin’s bazaar and dinner in a maharaja’s palace. Here in Vegas, the Sphinx has a nose and the Manhattan skyline has a shrieking, toe-curlingly scary roller coaster running around it. There is a Venice, with a maze of canals around the Piazza San Marco on which gondoliers serenade their passengers with O Sole Mio. This Venice, with its cafés, bridges, shops and monuments, is located on the air-conditioned second floor of the Venetian resort’s vast casino, but when you’re in there, you tend to lose sight of that fact. A block down the Strip, Bellagio’s Tuscan palace has waterworks in a pond larger than several football fields that Louis XIV would have loved for Versailles.

You don’t really believe you’re in the real thing, of course—there are no surly New Yorkers in Vegas’s New York, no pigeons in its Venice. But you will be mesmerized by the size, the scope, the wealth, the mad genius of it all, by how slick it is and how efficiently it works, by how plain crazy it is. Stay here long enough and your disbelief will be suspended, too. In Rome one evening, at that lovely café near the roaring fountain of Trevi, the waitress asks if you want to eat inside or

outdoors. If you chose “outdoors,” odds are good you’ll see the fading light lining the clouds with pink in the darkening sky. Sunsets occur every 45 minutes in this Rome.

When it has you properly disoriented, disbelief suspended to the point of forgetting where you are, Vegas has a slot machine or blackjack table just right for you. And you, whether a gambling person or not, will eventually find that table, if only to check if your own little private promised land wouldn’t, by any fat chance, be waiting right here, in Vegas, the land of promise.

But Vegas officials insist that gaming is only a fraction of the whole experience now. Every night, the Cirque and Celine Dion alone draw close to 9,000 spectators, at over $100 a pop, on average—on top of all the other mainstays, musicals and touring shows playing in town that night. “Las Vegas has become the entertainment capital of the world,” says Daniel Lamarre, Cirque du Soleil’s president and chief operating officer. “Producers the world over now routinely come to Vegas to see what’s new and good, like they used to go to London or New York before.” For Angelil, the math is simple: nobody has the money to raise the ante against Vegas. “Celine sings for 4,000 every night. If only half of them spend only $ 100 on food, drink and the slots, that’s $200,000 in extra revenue for Caesars Palace, every night.”

There is no personal or corporate income tax in Las Vegas.

THE CIRQUE DU SOLEIL HAS, over the years, developed a new entertainment idiom— a gibberish spoken nowhere else in the world, costumes and music never before seen or heard, acts and stunts that regularly seem to defy the laws of logic or gravity—a perfect fit with a city that lives by selling evasion and fantasy. Lanni says the Big Plan now is to look beyond the regular gambling crowd— preferably to the wealthy, sophisticated, globe-trotting set-to attract more people to the city. Already, according to a recent survey, five per cent of all visitors cite the Cirque as their prime reason for coming to Las Vegas, a destination they might have skipped otherwise. Drawing 1.8 million new tourists ayear to Las Vegas is one big ace up the Cirque’s sleeve. Still, that means some 34 million are coming to gamble, something Lanni hasn’t forgotten. “Gaming is the economic engine,” he says—and the bottom line is, “the house owns the slot machines.”