A global nightmare put an end to Le Rêve, French for “The Dream.” But the aquatic revue at Wynn Las Vegas had a charmed life for most of its 15 years, provided you could keep up with that ever-shifting quality people associate with their own dreams.
Granted, you don’t expect a lot of solid footing in a water show, where the audience surrounded the high-divers and the acrobatics staged in and above a pool. And only in Las Vegas would we already have one.
When it opened in 2005, Le Rêve was initially dismissed as a bungled knock-off of Cirque du Soleil’s O. But on it ran, rarely sitting still as it worked to distance itself. The hotel was always announcing some new addition or revision, with a lot of chefs in the kitchen. And some of the most specific decisions, down to the music and costumes, were made by the chef who had a whole company to oversee: hotel namesake Steve Wynn.
August 14 brought the news that Le Rêve would remain closed even after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, ending another old-Vegas anomaly: The show was 100 percent owned by Wynn Resorts, and its cast and crew were hotel employees. That didn’t mean much to ticket-buyers, unless they stepped back to notice that nearly every other theater space in town was leased to independent producers who took on most of the risk. But it’s also a likely explanation for why the hotel chose not to wait out the pandemic.
Brian Burke was the show’s artistic director for six years, and is now a producer on NBC’s America’s Got Talent. He says that compared to California, Nevada officials haven’t done a good job of coordinating a reopening plan with its entertainment industry. “You can’t buy a show ticket, but you can sit down in the restaurant next to the Le Rêve theater and have dinner,” he notes. If a show isn’t even allowed to test whether it could, say, run three times a day for a one-third capacity house, “Nobody can sustain paying people for that long.”
It takes a good memory now to recall times so good the Strip could have two multimillion-dollar aquatic shows, and the biggest challenge was trying to make them stand apart from one another. Le Rêve wasn’t supposed to be a direct competitor of O. It evolved from plans for a short outdoor water show to be staged several times a day, and the original $12 million budget was a fraction of Cirque’s. But it evolved into more of what people expected it to be, a schizophrenic mix of what was then expected of Cirque-era Vegas, and the restless ambition of Steve Wynn and former Cirque director Franco Dragone.
“People were dumping money down the street at KA (the Cirque show that cost at least $165 million), and Franco wanted to make a human-based show,” Burke recalls. But Wynn pumped at least another $25 million more into making Le Rêve lighter and brighter. His obsession — some would call it micromanaging — with the aquacade hearkened back to an earlier, pre-corporate era of Las Vegas, when properties were defined by their entertainment and the colorful figures in charge of it.
Wynn and Dragone had already transformed the Strip with Cirque’s Mystere and O, but their relationship was, well, complicated, and for a time Dragone was out of the picture altogether. “I prefer Cezanne, and he loves Matisse,” Dragone once explained.
Changes came early and often, starting with a quick and drastic overhaul in the week after Dragone shocked some patrons of a charity premiere by showing them “pregnant” women doing belly flops and fishing nets dredging up eerie reminders of another global catastrophe — the previous year’s giant tsunami. (“I am not the same man I was in ’98,” Dragone explained. “I have seen 9/11. I have seen the Iraq war, Katrina. … Yes, Le Rêve is darker, but why not?”). And it was still being tweaked by yet another creative hand, Broadway director Philip McKinley, almost up to the week in February 2018 when Wynn resigned as chairman of his company amid accusations of sexual misconduct.
“The friction sort of became the gold in a way,” Burke says now. “Those guys are dreamers, they’re big thinkers, and I feel the influence of working with them.”
Le Rêve was sure sexier than its Cirque counterpart, once it settled into a storyline focused on the erotic longings of a “beautiful dreamer,” as the old song goes. "It's very hard to take the Cirque references out," Wynn noted in late 2007, as he explored new corners of pop culture by recruiting Maksim Chmerkovskiy, of Dancing with the Stars, to add ballroom dancing to the aquatic mix.
“Everyone was there as a collective, and even though it was run by a corporate entity, it was intimate, personal, hands-on,” Burke says. “It was a family environment, and everyone really believed in it. Everybody didn’t become a number. And that’s why people have such passion about the fact that it closed.”
The price of longevity is becoming just another fixture on the Strip’s landscape, one that locals tend to forget until visitors came to town. But, unlike the faded showgirl opus Jubilee, no one no one imagined Le Rêve would close after “only” 15 years. Jubilee was another rare hotel-owned production, and its closing was said to owe less to the waning appeal of showgirls than the desire to get all those cast and crew members off the hotel payroll. It wouldn’t be wild speculation to wonder if, once the pandemic is over, an outside producer — maybe even one named Dragone — would turn the spigots back on and stage a new show on the water.
“My ultimate hope would be that the pandemic ends, and Franco and I would be the ones to get to do the new Le Rêve,” Burke says. “We don’t just want to go in like a vulture, but it’s like a piece of your soul and your heart is there.”