Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include comments by original creator Sasha Ivanov.
Sometimes, the backstage story is the one you really want to see.
For locals, the most distinctive thing about Celestia is the eye-catching big top housing it on the north side of The Strat. Those who venture in will find a pleasant and colorful acrobatics show, but one extremely familiar to Las Vegans with 25 years of easy access to Mystere and the Cirque du Soleil titles that followed.
But to reach this innocuous result? They had to get past the turtle monster. The Celestia of today is the result of a drastic two-month reboot, which threw out most of the first version and started over. Not filming the show’s Extreme Makeover — or Entertainment Overhaul, the title suggested by a Strat executive — seems like a sad missed opportunity.
“We gutted the whole thing. I said, there’s nothing really to keep here,” says producer Brian Burke.
Burke took over in March, weeks after Celestia’s originally advertised opening, once the first version was deemed unfit to open by its investors, the AllRise Financial Group headed by Rusian Zinurov and Sasha Evseeva. The credits no longer include the name of the original creator, Sasha Ivanov, a former musical director for Cirque’s touring show Kooza.
“I was completely crushed,” Ivanov says of his dismissal. “They changed their minds at my expense.”
Ivanov says AllRise and Strat executives “signed a major agreement based on what they saw and what they loved” in a 45-minute presentation, and remained enthusiastic through last fall, when budget problems set in.
At first he was first thankful that an external team had been recruited for help, because “we didn’t have enough resources to do it in-house.”
But then, he was “pushed aside,” Ivanov says. “I guess they kind of ganged up on me.” He thinks hotel executives got cold feet after a marketing change of direction that came with February’s name change from the Stratosphere to the Strat. “Even if they did change their mind (about the direction of the show) they should not have thrown me out.”
“They didn’t have a functioning team (or) a person at the helm who understood what it was to direct a show,” says Burke, the longtime artistic director for Le Reve, and now a producer for NBC’s America’s Got Talent. “They needed a team, and they needed people who could turn it around quickly. Nobody wanted it to be a failure, but they knew they couldn’t keep postponing it, and they needed help.”
Ivanov’s Facebook page reflects pride in his version’s progress from casting in the summer of 2017 to a late February call for a new acrobatic act. By then, Burke already had been asked to take a look. And what he found was “very depressing, and very dark, very evil-driven. I would never take a family to it.”
An hour-long YouTube video from February, posted by Ivanov (but marked “Unlisted”) does play like a Wagnerian opera without the singing. The sets and costumes are more literal, perhaps a Medieval village. There’s more fire and menace, with some type of alligator people and a contortionist doing her act atop what looks like a fossilized sea turtle. But even if you argue there’s room for a Lord of the Rings-styled dark fantasy on the Strip, the video is a long slog to its impressively ethereal climax, in which a hero walks a tightrope, then floats off a platform to join his love in mid-air.
“I don’t want to sit through a love story, and I don’t want to sit through one more good-versus-evil thing,” Burke says. His pitch was, “It needs to look new, needs to brightened up. It needs to be hopeful, it needs to be magical. It needs to be simple. And it needs to be for the ticket-buyers who watch America’s Got Talent.”
What the show did have was “a very talented cast,” Burke says. “People who were completely underutilized. A lot of very experienced circus performers. I think the heart and soul of the show are the performers.”
Burke followed a similar path with Le Reve at Wynn Las Vegas. The aquatic revue also was criticized for being gloomy and sometimes creepy when it debuted in 2005, so Burke and creator Franco Dragone gradually added humor and color. Those changes phased in slowly, in front of paying customers. But Burke was able to tell his Celestia cast, “It wasn’t going to be easy, but we had done it.”
Beyond the visible changes, “It’s about building a new kind of team spirit,” he adds. “It’s a delicate, fragile kind of thing to be able to do.”
And where did all this hard work lead? Celestia did get to that brighter place, one full of video projections and cool costumes, including an Alexander McQueen vibe for the magical title character (played by Ilona Fedorko) who touches down in different worlds and — like Burke offstage — brings light to darkness.
But stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The show begins with Celestia’s two clown companions (Pasha Mikhaylov and Maxim Fomitchev) coming out of the audience, before an opening number with bungee acrobats and tribal drumming. Cirque-saturated locals can be forgiven for suppressing a yawn if they didn’t come in as pre-sold fans of America’s Got Talent balancing act the Sandau Trio, or the knife-throwing Deadly Games of Alfredo and Anna Silva.
And the “tent” — really more of a pavilion — is less exciting than it looks from the outside. There’s no in-the-round intimacy of Absinthe. Bleachers face a domed stage with a back wall. Two lighting towers create obstructed views for some seats.
Burke is sentimental about the host property. The Stratosphere was where he came to dance in 1998’s Tap Dogs and decided to stay in town. And he likes the show’s business strategy of price-cutting Cirque: Celestia tickets are $29-$89, while Mystere is $53-$95. Still, you wonder if Celestia would have an easier challenge had the big top sprung up in Reno or Biloxi, where it would be a bigger fish, instead of going up against six (soon to be seven) Cirque titles.
But that question likely will be settled by tourists. Locals for whom Cirque has played a recurring role in birthday parties or grad nights can only smile if they catch themselves bored, and laugh in recognition that becoming jaded to amazing acrobatics is a unique quirk of living in Las Vegas.
That, and wondering what you might have missed with that turtle monster.