THERE’S LITTLE activity at Aria by the time I get there at 11:30 a.m. Mine is the only car waiting in the valet line. I have the escalator to myself. There’s no sign of life or lunch near the upstairs eateries. And the red carpet area across from the showroom is empty. You’d never know a new Cirque du Soleil show is debuting tonight, ordinarily an event as ubiquitous as a casino implosion or a Manny Pacquiao fight. It’s going to be a long day for me, as I participate in the press activities for the opening of Zarkana, formerly a touring show that will now find a permanent residency in the same theater that once hosted Viva Elvis. I liked that show, but many did not; and many more simply chose to not see it. The initial hype for Zarkana promises more human fireworks and general Cirqueyness than its predecessor.
My first duty is to interview Nick Littlemore, the Australian music producer and supervisor — the first one Cirque has employed from the rock/pop world. He’s half of Empire of the Sun, the flamboyant, Ecstasy-kissed band that made its Vegas debut at the 2011 Electric Daisy Carnival. He’s also half of Pnau (pronounced Pin-YOW), an electro-pop duo that recently hit the top of the U.K. charts with an Elton John collaboration album. Littlemore’s due in Sydney right after his Zarkana promotional duties to perform with John. “It will be a jet-laggy week!” he jokes. It will also arguably be the biggest week of his career. “No one who isn’t special gets to do a show here,” he says, still astounded he got the gig.
We talk about the differences between making music for Zarkana, where his compositions must be malleable for the acrobatic choreography, and Empire of the Sun, which is nearly done with its second album. “Do you want to hear some of it?” he asks, reaching for his laptop bag. Oh my God, yes. “I haven’t played it for anyone yet!” he adds, making my head spin more. The new music has a bit more vigor to it, but still sounds like Empire. From there, I’m given a tour of the showroom and backstage area, interviewing principals along the way. Writer/director Francois Gerard tells me the show was originally developed for Radio City Music Hall. Russian sand artist Vira Sivirotkina gives me a demo, and then lends me her “canvas” — a lighted glass table covered with sand — suggesting I draw a book. My volume looks like a badly parted wig. When balance walkers Pedro Carrillo and Luis Acosta ask if I want to give their low wire a try, I avoid embarrassing myself again.
I return a few hours later for the show’s premiere, which is packed with journalists I recognize and celebrities I don’t (other than the dude from Foster the People). Zarkana’s American circus roots, which Gerard spoke of earlier, are apparent from the introductory juggling segment. Some of the production is breathtaking, such as the ladder balancing act. Some of it is also “druggy,” a word Littlemore used to describe the soundtrack, and many of the visuals — from the various sets to the slo-mo cannon blast of a clown above the crowd — share that quality, too. Sivirotkina has the least physically demanding role in the production — she pushes the sand around her glass table, which is projected onto a screen above her — but she gets the loudest ovation, which is awesome. In the end, it’s not much more acrobatic than Viva Elvis, but there aren’t any silly superhero trampoline acts, either. This is traditional Cirque; even the two-man hamster wheel from Ka makes an appearance. It doesn’t quite compare to that production, or O, but it’s a safe, escapist bet for Aria, long lacking any entertainment draw. After, I join the after-party, where servers relentlessly serve us food from several MGM restaurants. I eat so many samples of pork belly and tartare and tiramisu, I decide to go home to reboot, not sticking around for my friends who are attending the later show. What a day.