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In this issue of Desert Companion, science writer Alec Pridgeon takes a sweeping historical look at Southern Nevada’s many precious Indigenous rock writing sites, with an eye toward the threat posed to them by increased outdoor recreation, as well as vandalism. Also: Six local thought leaders in healthcare share what they’d do to improve healthcare if they were in charge; and 2023 Writer in Residence Meg Bernhard kicks off her six-part series of reported essays on people and climate change.

Shown Up

Awakening's stage production
Wynn Las Vegas

Is the evolution of Vegas entertainment leaving big productions behind?

Suppose they opened a $120 million spectacle, and no one came? It’s a fair, if exaggerated, question: If Las Vegas is all about music stars and sports these days, what is the fate of the year-round show with wide appeal that defined the Cirque du Soleil era? There’s no disputing entertainment on the Strip has realigned around big names such as Adele. And every show now competes for attention and hotel guests with pro football, hockey, basketball, and other teams.

Small wonder we haven’t seen much in the way of new shows built on variety or acrobat- ics when Carrie Underwood has sold out 18 times at Resorts World. Cirque downsized its ambitions to open the relatively modest Mad Apple last summer. But Amystika — a companion show to Criss Angel’s regular one at Planet Hollywood — closed before most people could look up the meaning of the title they’d seen all over billboards and cabs. Bat Out of Hell, the jukebox musical based on the hits of the late rocker Meat Loaf, was even more extensively advertised. But it lasted only three months at Paris Las Vegas before closing on New Year’s Day.

Nonetheless, “Vegas without new pro- duction shows isn’t Vegas,” says Baz Halpin, producer and director of Awakening, the grandest of four recent entries which tested the new marketplace. “There hasn’t really been a new permanent resident spectacle show. I thought it was really the time to bring those back.”

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The $120 million production opened in November to replace Le Rêve in the circular theater at Wynn Las Vegas. The Wynn- backed budget would be closer to $187 million in adjusted dollars for 2004, when Cirque opened its like-minded, $165 million epic KÀ.

Awakening updates what’s possible in live performance: A “floating” hydraulic stage in interlocking pieces. State-of-the-art video projections. Colossal puppets ( by Michael Curry, the Lion King guy). Personal stereo speakers in every seat. Pretty big deal, right?

But there was, let’s just say, no problem getting tickets in the early weeks.

Could be people don’t want to gamble on an unknown entity when they still have six dependable Cirque hits and three from Spiegelworld to choose from.

Lower-stakes alternatives tried to offer audiences something different altogether but haven’t fared much better. Freestyle Love Supreme was a fun hip-hop update of improv comedy that closed early. And the first several weeks didn’t inspire optimism for two cabaret shows sharing cast members as well as a theatrical slant: A Musical About Star Wars and Newsical the Musical. But content may be less of an issue now than visitor priorities.

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Awakening opened in time for what once was a slow month on the Strip, December, propped up by the National Finals Rodeo. But that month also saw two Las Vegas Raiders and eight Vegas Golden Knights games. Rooms at the Excalibur went for $499 the first weekend.

And look at the period of March 3-12, which brings both NASCAR and the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament. Even if you don’t count Adele — whose tickets are for one-percenters and/or like winning the lottery to score a pair — it’s easy to add up more than 100,000 headliner tickets for sale in that stretch:

  • Katy Perry (2 shows with 5,000 seats = 10,000)
  • David Blaine (2 x 3,500 = 7,000)
  • Keith Urban (5 x 5,000 = 25,000)
  • Usher (he’s going full Wayne Newton with two-show nights — 10 x 5,200 = 52,000)

That’s 94,000 tickets on the market. To keep going, just add two Jimmy Buffett arena shows, five nights of classic rockers Chicago, three nights of jam-band Widespread Panic, and so on
You can forgive producers of the year- round shows if they didn’t jump for joy when industry trade bible Pollstar named Allegiant Stadium the nation’s top concert-sale venue. They may be the only people happy about how hard it is to score a Taylor Swift ticket for March 24-25.

AWAKENING’S HALPIN IS in a unique place to see the challenge from both sides: He also produced Katy Perry’s Play at Resorts World. Yes, he will literally be competing with himself when Perry returns March 3-4.

“I think it’s indicative of how increasingly successful Las Vegas is as a tourist destination. It seems the appetite for Las Vegas has increased exponentially,” he says. And “all of this is only good,” he believes, in growing the larger market.

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“If you’re a Katy Perry fan and she’s playing in town, you’re probably going to go see Katy Perry (once),” he adds. “But people like variety in their entertainment. They like to see some- thing that can only be seen in Las Vegas, and I think that’s where Awakening sits.”

That theory might be reinforced by the early closure of a what seemed like a smartly positioned alternative, Freestyle Love Supreme, at the Venetian. Far from spectacle, the New York import relied on audience interaction. And it kept ambitions modest by booking a limited run from November through April. “We want to be there for as long as possible, but we need to test the market,” co-creator Anthony Veneziale said in the more optimistic days of December. But Freestyle fell short of even that mark, closing at the end of January.

While their shows had little in common, both Veneziale and Halpin were encouraged by the growing base of potential customers. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority calculates 4,758 new rooms coming onto the market this year, pushing the total room count past 156,000.

“There are 7,000 rooms at the Venetian ... We just need five percent of the (people in those) rooms to say, ‘Hey, we’ll try this out,’” Veneziale figured in December. He also noted the “staggeringly high percentage of day-of sales” — maybe as much as 80 percent — for those visitors who still wait to decide what to see once they arrive in town.

If that logic seems misguided in hindsight, then why? It may come down to the age-old challenge of show business: Figuring out just what people do want to see — and now, how much time and money they have to see it. Veneziale believed post-pandemic audiences were looking for “a sense of belonging, a sense of community” rather than spectacle. He may have been right about that, but wrong about where to find it. Perhaps that community is found hoisting drinks with fellow fans of Usher or Luke Bryan.

Denise Truscello
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Or maybe it's found in a hearing a story. Awakening and Bat Out of Hell coincidentally explored a shift from Cirque-type acrobatics to actual narrative. “I think (audiences) are more sophisticated,” Halpin says. “I think they want more from their entertainment, and I think that’s great for everybody in Las Vegas.”

Exploring new directions beyond Cirque- style acrobatics is promising and arguably way overdue, but tricky in its own right. Bat Out of Hell was not much of a test case. Severely trimmed from the British original, it was barely coherent and full of astonishingly bad dialogue. And the rollout version of Awakening often seemed like a production design still in search of a show. Early feedback suggested “people want a little more story if anything,” Halpin says of his “myth-based” saga, narrated by a recorded Anthony Hopkins. He adds that it’s still a work-in-progress, seeking to balance technology with “those more intimate human moments.”

Perhaps the answer to the big names is to think even smaller. Be that extra thing to do on a visit. Even punch up — make fun of the Adele show.

Producers Tom and Michael D’Angora went so small, they paired up two micro-budget shows with shared cast members in the V Theater at Planet Hollywood. A Musical About Star Wars brought a trio of comic actors analyzing the cultural impact of the movie phenomenon with a noticeably un- authorized prop closet — very careful not to violate copyrights are they. The result has a few fun song parodies, but, in lieu of actual punchlines, a whole lot more of what one character calls “fan-splaining ”: lectures that border on a TED Talk.

Newsical The Musical is a better New York transplant, looking to see if it can lure any of its following to a 6 p.m. time slot. A versatile quartet fuses sketch comedy and musical cabaret to spoof Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, Kim Kardashian and, yes, Adele. It’s a promising unclaimed niche for the Strip, but still a long shot even without the presentational issues that made this version seem even cheaper than it is. (Both shows were recast in January after their December opening.)

Just because Freestyle Love Supreme didn’t work out, it shouldn’t mean that limited engagements should be written off as a failed idea. Broadway’s SIX The Musical, a poppy take on Henry VIII’s wives, is booked for a limited run in a different Venetian theater March 21-May 7. It also played a week at The Smith Center last fall, so its return will test whether the Strip and the arts center can share a Broadway hit.

But the pressure’s on. Just east of the Venetian is a hard-to-miss new landmark: the MSG Sphere. Inside that giant 366-foot orb is— would ya believe it? — another concert venue. It’s scheduled to open with U2 in November. And those guys also know a thing or two about spectacle. ✦

Update: After the deadline for the print version of this story, the V Theater confirmed the companion shows Newsical the Musical and A Musical About Star Wars would not be reopening after a break to rehearse a new cast.