Vegas, Old and New
While the core business of Las Vegas is the same as it’s always been, i.e., separating people who aren’t very good at remedial math from their money, the style of the place has undergone a well-documented facelift. Gone are the Mob-run grind joints; scrapped are the family destination ambitions; almost forgotten are the days of louche lounge singers and streetwalking prostitutes. Now Las Vegas is luxe.
Outside of New York City, Las Vegas may be the fanciest dining town in America, where celebrated chefs hang their toques in grand hotel-resorts dripping with crystal and illuminated by recessed halogen bulbs. Everything now is fine and pretty and effortfully yearning for the sublime. Even the famous Las Vegas stage shows, once the dominion of topless girls and smarmy entertainers in ruffled tuxedoes, are chic, with production values (and ticket prices) worthy of Broadway and beyond. This new Las Vegas ethos is best illustrated by the advent — bordering on a complete takeover — of the Cirque du Soleil phenomenon.
I can think of 7 popular Vegas shows produced and directed by members of the Cirque cartel. (There may be others I’m forgetting). They are to Vegas entertainment what the Shubert Group is to the Great White Way.
Once a modest Canadian street troupe, a circus without animals, “Cirque,” as its now familiarly known, has grown into both a powerful production company and a style of theater, the hallmarks of which are sumptuous “dreamscapes” realized in light, costume, and inscrutable troll-like characters that perform gymnastic choreography impervious to comprehension. A Cirque show usually features live music that successfully melds “world ” beats with evocative wailing. In addition to acrobats, contortionists, and whatever you call those ladies who spin around from a rope suspended in the rafters, one can also count on a Cirque show to be populated by a menagerie of spooky creatures that appear to be the offspring of 18th Century courtiers and dragons. The whole spectacle overwhelms the senses and underwhelms the heart. These shows serve as an elegant metaphor for what the new Las Vegas is all about: style, sizzle, and sumptuousness — and never mind what lies beneath.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of attending the last show ever presented at the Stardust, the hotel at which the events in the movie “Casino” took place, and which is scheduled for demolition next month. The entertainers were Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, the husband and wife singers who bridge the generation between Frank Sinatra and today. Backed by a hot 24-piece big band, these septuagenarians sang, told stories, danced (a little), and generally put their emotions on their (silk and satin) sleeves. Despite the absence of cavorting Harlequins and cartwheeling clowns, and without a 100,000-gallon onstage pool or Bulgarian strongmen tossing their mates to the ceiling, Steve and Eydie were mesmerizing. They seemed, then, like an elegant metaphor for the Old Vegas: a Guy, his Doll, and deeply felt words and music immune to shifting tastes in fashion.
The new Vegas is cool. I miss the days when it was hot.