The biggest problem with doing a show based on Elvis Presley’s life is that he became larger than life (and no, that’s not a “Fat Elvis” joke). The King of Rock and Roll became a legend that nothing (eventually not even he) could live up to, then sadly — a parody, a stereotype.
How then to get around that problem to produce something that’s not a parody? Something that honors the King’s life and legacy without turning into a caricature? For the folks at Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis,” the answer was simple. And brilliant.
No, you’ll see no “Elvis Impersonators” during the performance (the big closing number notwithstanding, sort of). For the most part, “Viva Elvis” lets the King speak (well, sing) for himself, in audio and video clips that are often pulled out of their original context and turned into duets with live performers. When Elvis doesn’t sing, the songs are inspired and innovative re-imaginings of classics sung by female singers without a hint of a lip curl or trademark slur. Even when Elvis does “appear” on stage, it’s in an almost generic sense—as if the character was meant merely as a placeholder: A young GI in uniform; two young men in t-shirts and jeans representing Elvis and his twin brother Jesse, who died at birth (in a number that serves as a sweet and touching nod to the feelings of loss and guilt Elvis carried with him throughout his life.)
“Viva Elvis” is an unconventional Cirque show, which oddly makes it seem more of a traditional Vegas show. The set is classic: a large stage in the front of the theater, complete with big red velvet curtains. The acrobatics are there, but take a back seat to more conventional choreography. The music is there too, but so is a narrative, delivered by the character of Elvis’ longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Given all this, it seems no wonder that “Viva Elvis” seems to have sparked more controversy that most Cirque shows in recent memory, almost polarizing its fans—and Elvis’, for that matter. Bizarrely, though, the camps don’t seem to align in any consistent way—fans of all sorts fall in the both the “loved it” and “hated it” camps.
The show takes the form of a loose recap of the King’s life: his early years, his induction in the Army, his return and emergence as a Hollywood star and finally his establishment as the ultimate Vegas entertainer. Happily (for this is not a documentary), the show skips Elvis’ tragic downfall into excess in favor of ending on a high note with a lavish, classic Vegas showstopper, replete with showgirls with big headdresses and and chorus of jumpsuitted Elvii.
In between, we are treated to some phenomenal numbers and energetic acrobatic sequences, including the most “Cirque-like” performance of the show, a superhero-themed, gravity-defying trampoline scene, ostensibly based on Elvis’ love of comic books. Other highlights included a remarkable version of “All Shook Up” done as a gospel song; a delightfully rendition of “Return to Sender” that would be enough reason on its own to buy the show’s soundtrack (sadly, it’s not included on it); a whimsical and incredible demonstration of old-fashioned rodeo roping (believe it or not); and an updated and expanded recreation of Elvis’ famous Jailhouse Rock scene from the eponymous film.
It’s a testament to the enduring appeal of Elvis that in many of the sequences featuring him singing on a large video screen behind the set, I kept finding my eyes drawn to him even over the dancing and acrobatics taking place on stage. Such is till the power of the King.
“Viva Elvis” is a playful, joyful tribute to the King that deftly uses new arrangements to avoid clichés, and in turn embraces enough of the “kitch” of the times to make it a wildly entertaining delight, and as Elvis himself would surely appreciate, a veritable spectacle.
In short: It’s a hunka hunka burnin’ fun.
More information and tickets for “Viva Elvis” are available from the show’s page on the Aria hotel’s website.