LAS VEGAS - On June 29, the top executives of the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil were here at the theater inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, sitting alongside the likes of Justin Bieber, Spike Lee and Neil Patrick Harris, celebrating the opening of "Michael Jackson ONE," the latest Cirque creation, designed as an evocation of the music and spirit of the late King of Pop.
Those executives were in dire need of a successful night. The annus horribilis of an entertainment colossus that once seemed infallible began last August with the demise of "Viva Elvis," a Cirque show reflecting its newfound interest in working with the estates of iconic celebrities. Not only was "Elvis" a uncharacteristically bland and unimaginative show — a whitewash of its subject to the point of rendering the man unrecognizable — but audiences at the high-end Aria Hotel and Casino responded with a yawn. Cirque had wanted to do a retooling, but the hotel's owner, MGM Resorts, which found the box-office reports depressing reading, told them to close it down instead. Shows shutter all the time, but not Cirque shows in Vegas. None of its desert extravaganzas, which typically cost tens of millions to produce and take years to recoup, had ever closed. Performers grow old within them. The masterpiece "Mystere" has been playing nearly 20 years.
After the "Elvis" debacle came the layoffs of 400 Cirque employees, some 9 percent of the staff, announced in January. That led to an uncomfortable headline in the large Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail: "Massive layoffs and mediocrity: Has Cirque du Soleil lost its way?"
Mandalay Bay has a fake beach and wave pool, and that was the site of the opening-night party for "ONE." Cirque is famous for its extravagant parties, which typically go on for several hours. But on this occasion, attendees say news filtered in that there had been, that very Saturday night, a serious accident just up the Strip at the MGM Grand, at "Ka," one of Cirque's most massive and artful creations. The show had been canceled midperformance. Although most of the Mandalay Bay celebrants did not know it straightaway, an accident inside one of the show's thrilling battle scenes had led to the death of a performer, Sarah Guyard-Guillot, a 31-year-old mother of two. Although all circus shows involve risk, and minor accidents are not unknown, no one had ever died while performing a Cirque show.
The word here is that the Cirque leadership and staffers, who remain close-knit despite all of the above, were devastated beyond measure by the death of Guyard-Guillot. Creative or financial struggles are one thing; this was another. This, they felt, had nothing to do with any narrative trajectory of a company, despite the sudden interest of the media in connecting those dots. The accident led to the temporary suspension of "Ka." As of Thursday, the show still was very slowly easing back into rehearsals with the intent of removing the scene that contained the accident. The reopening date, likely to be quiet, has yet to be set. Cirque wants the artists themselves to decide when they are ready.
All of that might explain why "Michael Jackson ONE" opened here with attention very much focused elsewhere. That's a shame. It is a strikingly beautiful and emotional show. Indeed, "ONE," which was created by Jamie King, who once danced alongside Jackson on his "Dangerous" world tour in 1992-93, is the first Cirque show in a good long while to feel like it actually has a heart. That crucial collective drive of vulnerability, wonder and striving for rebirth informed all the great early Cirque shows, especially those created by its early auteur, Franco Dragone, the creator of "O." The return of an emotional personal vision is long overdue.
"Michael Jackson ONE" actually is being widely confused with "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour," a separate, arena-based Cirque show, also based on the life and works of Jackson and that has been playing arenas around the world (including the United Center in Chicago last summer). Although a hit at the box office, "The Immortal" is a massive, cool-to-the-touch hagiography that captures Jackson's thirst for the kinetic and the spectacular but seems to crush his gentle spirit and confusing legacy with video, volume, freneticism and fireworks. It evidences a fear of intimacy, which is not surprising given the complexities of its subject, but still, that's no excuse for not seeming to reveal much of the man.
King's far superior and infinitely more personal piece at Mandalay Bay is a whole different beast.
Indeed, it contains a beast at its center: a roving man-and-machine with arms made up of cameras, headlines, flashbulbs and probing tentacles. When you add the projected tabloid images on the walls of the theater that greet the audience as it enters, you grasp the show has an antagonist not unlike the one that pursued Jackson himself. By contrast, the representations of Jackson are fleeting, flickering and fragile. The notion of Jackson rendered in twinkling lights and inhabiting the Milky Way will sound cloying to the controversial late star's detractors, of course, but then such people are not the target audience. And to King's great credit, he doesn't deify so much as evoke with arresting fullness that familiar Jacksonian worldview — that instantly recognizable, inherently unworkable blend of softness, horror, urbanity and escape. The Jackson of "ONE" captures that wildly singular fusion of childhood innocence and pulp stardom — and makes clear that when Jackson died, the world of Neverland disappeared with him, for good or ill.
It is a show that makes you miss the man and his art. In its best moments, it makes you wonder what aspects of him ever really touched the earth.
"ONE," as seen Wednesday, is a remarkable sonic experience. There are a whopping 5,800 speakers installed in the theater, including at least three in every seat, creating an experience that certainly can't be re-created in arenas. The mixes of the Jackson hits are, of course, based on the original recordings, but they have been infused by music director Kevin Antunes with theatricality. There are unexpected pauses, mashups, stutters, reaches.
The take on "Bad," performed against a backdrop of a graffiti-clad moving subway car with original Jackson video playing off to the side, is especially resonant in that it contextualizes Jackson's music against a stark, brutal picture of the big U.S. cities of the 1980s, before mayors started cleaning them up and the yuppies moved back. It's arresting little meditation on what the weird man was up against back then with all his talk of reconciliation and wonder.
King uses a frame — a quartet of initially cynical youthful explorers in street clothes breaking into Neverland, it seems, and slowly being immersed and empowered by Jackson's world. It's not a wildly original device (the chaotic first version of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" on Broadway tried something similar with disastrous results), but it is executed very well by King, and it allows for an eye-popping final moment when 50 or so dancers we've watched do "Bad," "Thriller" and "Beat It" disappear en masse into the floor, even as their guiding Jackson sprit heads for the rafters. The fan characters, who remind you of the crew from Scooby Doo, until they start to dance themselves, then just get on with their lives. Mostly by not fearing a few notes of ambiguity, King pulls off what surely read in description as hokey devices.
There's one such moment, which will be what most people carry home from their costly 90 minutes, when Jackson, who is never impersonated in the show directly, appears in holographic form, dancing alongside the company, only to suddenly transform into his younger self from Gary, Ind., only then to disappear without warning into a puff of digitized smoke, leaving the other dancers sad and confused.
It's an eye-popping trick, worth the price of admission. Aside from wondering how on earth they did that with such realism, you get an existential shiver or two. It's certainly a moment that plays with an icon's immortality — which is what a lot of Jackson fans want — but it's just removed enough that it does not so much feel like Jackson has been reborn so much as taken the form of a ghost dancing, not so different from the visions that both ennobled and terrified Scrooge. People's mouths fall open.
The sensation is, as anything sensational about Jackson always should be, complex. And complexity coupled with heart is the only way to bring a grieving Cirque back.