No aspect of the Strip has been hit harder by the coronavirus pandemic than live shows. But they're starting to make a comeback.

And no, we’re not talking about ambient entertainment with some singer at the other end of a dining room.

A dozen Vegas favorites recently returned to stages — albeit with a set of stringent requirements for the pandemic. 

Can these shows succeed with social distancing, smaller audiences and reduced spectacle?

One man who has had to adjust his usual production flair is Spiegelworld’s Ross Mollison, the man behind "Absinthe," "Opium" and "Atomic Saloon Show."

"Absinthe" at Caesars Palace re-opened last week. The other two shows could not be adjusted to meet the 25-foot guideline for performers. 

Mollison said the team at "Absinthe" was very creative in how it changed parts of the performance to accommodate the new guideline and other social distancing rules.

Support comes from

"We've just come up with new ideas, new ways of doing the show," he said.

Mollison said despite there being "a natural anxiety in the audience when the show first begins" after seven months of no shows, "we've found that people are loving the new ideas we've put into the show. You've just got to be creative."

He added that it is really about finding a business model that works within the health restrictions outlined by public health officials.

"Absinthe" was known for being interactive with audience members by bringing them on stage. That part of the show has been changed. Mollison said the audience now interacts from their own socially distanced cafe tables.

They've also created socially separated areas in the theater tent's foyer and improved the air system to circulate cleaner air. In addition, the company is tested weekly, and audience members have their temperatures checked before entering the tent. 

"[These are] all the things we can do just to make it as safe as possible, which then leads to people being able to get back a sense of normalcy," Mollison said.

He said the safety plan was approved by local and state officials. Now, his team is sharing it with whoever in live entertainment that wants it.

"We want as much of the entertainment back in Vegas as possible," he said.

Under state guidelines, 250 people can gather, but the tent doesn't allow that many because of the 25-foot rule for performers. Mollison said they are selling out all 150 tickets to the show.

He is hoping that the 25-foot rule gets changed.

"We live in hope that that will be reviewed at some point," he said."If that changes, that will greatly help us improve our business model and help our longevity." 

Mollison said Jim Murren, who is the head of the state's COVID-19 response task force, is looking into whether that restriction can change.

John Katsilometes is the longtime entertainment reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He saw the show recently and said the performers do a good job of dealing with the pandemic, which, as he describes it, is the elephant in the room. 

However, the distance between the audience and the performers is noticeable.

"The show was backed up away from the audience," he said. "The 'entertainment moat,' as we call it, I think that's the biggest restriction we're dealing with right now. If shows can prove that they can safely perform under these conditions, that will be relaxed and that will allow shows like 'Atomic' and 'Opium' and many others around town to reopen."

Katsilometes said smaller shows are opening sooner because show producers have to start at a smaller scale, but eventually, he believes other shows will open.

"Vegas will find a way to get these shows back up, for the time being, and perform what you can only see in Las Vegas, but it is going to take time," he said. "It's going to be a step-by-step process."

Mollison admits "Absinthe" is not making money, but what money it is pulling in is better than what the company had experienced during the shutdown.

"This is a better business model than we've had for the last seven months where we were just spending a quarter of a million dollars a month with zero income," he said.

For the entire Spiegelworld team to come back work, the other two shows would need to come back. Mollison said he is working with their host properties, the Venetian and the Cosmpolitan, to make that happen.

"We're not complaining. We're better off. We're certainly better off than the producers of headliner entertainment and really big production shows like Cirque [du Soleil]," he said.

Every Las Vegas Cirque show has been closed since March with no word on when those shows will return.

Mollison said he is talking with the people at Cirque all the time about the state of the industry. He is optimistic those shows will return and be part of the future of Las Vegas.

"Cirque is going to come back," he said, "As soon as we lose this social separation rule, they're going to be back with 1,800 seat theaters [and] their incredibly beautifully poetic shows."

It's not just Cirque and his shows that Mollison believes in. He said the Allegiant Stadium will be packed, along with the forthcoming MSG Sphere, the convention center and all the headliner shows.

"No one thing makes Las Vegas great. It's all of us working together and that's what this pandemic has taught us all," he said.

(Editor's note: This story originally aired Nov. 6)


Ross Mollison, founder and producer, Spiegelworld; John Katsilometes, entertainment reporter, Review-Journal

KNPR and NPR Thank-You Gifts including t-shirts hoodies and cap

More Stories

KNPR's State of Nevada