Retro vs. Techno in New Vegas Strip Shows

By Marilyn LaRocque

Retro vs. techno on the Las Vegas Strip as two production shows with familiar names morph into new identities.

At Aria at City Center, “Elvis” has left the building and been replaced by Cirque du Soleil’s seventh extravaganza in Vegas, Zarkana.  The long-running Blue Man Group has relocated their reinvented off-the-wall zaniness from The Venetian to the Monte Carlo, former home of magician Lance Burton.

A fusion of  “bizarre” and “arcane,” Zarkana epitomizes the over-the-top, sometimes grotesque, creativity of a Cirque show. White-costumed organ grinders and umbrella-carrying greeters are joined by a collection of clowns, teddy-bear-carrying characters, a ballerina in a white tutu, a gibberish-spouting sage toting a ponderous tome, and performers walking across the backs of the theater seats.  In short—typical Cirque pre-show insanity.

Muscle men and high-flying acrobats dazzle with Banquine, a spectacular Middle Ages circus routine climaxing Zarkana. Photo by Jeremy Daniel and Richard Termine; Costumes by Alan Hranitelj; © Cirque du Soleil.

Zarkana originated as a touring show…New York, Madrid, and Moscow…and the acts definitely have a retro aura that spotlights circus staples.  No pounding drums, bungee chord aerialists, or mind-boggling engineering wizardry.  However, outrageous sets and electronic extravagance launch the techno WOW —snakes undulating around the proscenium arch, floating eyeballs, cascades of red roses, singing clown heads, gigantic intermeshing, moving gears.

Totally opposite is a couple’s balancing act anchored by a two-legged hardware store ladder.  Standing on the top rung, he turns the ladder while she balances on his head using one arm.  He also climbs the ladder while she stands on his shoulders…and then she climbs a second ladder supported on his shoulders and stands on her hands at the top.  Don’t try this at home!

High wire walking double-decker style at Zarkana. Photo by John Davis; Costumes by Alan Hranitelj; © Cirque du Soleil.

Fire sparks a two-man high wire act, which also involves skipping rope, leap-frogging over each other, and traversing the rope with one performer standing on the other’s shoulders.  Following in rapid succession are flag tossing, wheel rings manipulated by performers standing inside, tedious clown sequences, a solo contortionist who balances on one hand, and an excess of Cirque-speak songs.

Flags fly at Zarkana. Photo by Jeremy Daniel and Richard Termine; Costumes by Alan Hranitelj; © Cirque du Soleil.

What’s new for Cirque is sand painting.  Seated at a glass-topped table covered with blue sand, an artist sketches ever-changing images that are projected onto an enormous screen.  Fascinating…at least for the first five minutes.

Pictures in the sand reach a new dimension at Zarkana. Photo by Jeremy Daniel and Richard Termine; Costumes by Alan Hranitelj; © Cirque du Soleil.

The pace skyrockets when 12 aerialists on the trapeze gyrate through space with multiple twists and somersaults, simultaneous exchanges, and impressive flips and catches against a spider web background with sequined spiders.  Another crowd pleaser is the “Wheel of Death,” two daredevils running around both the interior and exterior of a pair of wheels at opposite ends of a rotating axis.  They jump rope and, in general, defy gravity and self-preservation.

High flyers let go at Zarkana. Photo by Jeremy Daniel and Richard Termine; Costumes by Alan Hranitelj; © Cirque du Soleil.

For the show’s climax, Zarkana revisits the Middle Ages with “Banquine,” an awesome Italian acrobatic act.  “Porters,” muscle men, and “flyers,” high-flying acrobats, flex and soar in a perpetual motion display of physical strength, grace, and agility.  No wires.  No apparatus.  Just manpower.  Four pair of “porters” with hands and forearms interlocked serve as springboards for “flyers” who somersault from one “landing/launching pad” to another, twirling and whirling over their handlers’ heads as they hurtle across the stage.  They form a four-person-high tower, create a pyramid with the point person performing a split high in the air, and amaze with other power feats. Incredible!

Pipe music Blue Man style. Photo by Denise Truscello.

The online hype about the Blue Man Group’s new show ballyhoos “a primaltronically phosphorpedic, biomechani-morphically audiorrific, technodelically tribalicious, cyborganic, and just a freakin’ cool experience” that’s “turbo-charged…with electrifying music, sensational technology, and innovative new ways of interacting with the audience” and, furthermore, “is a thrilling, energy-infused performance that introduces wildly inventive musical instruments, a humorous look at robots and creativity, and a mind-blowing (literally) tour inside the neural network of the human brain.”

Whew! What a promo to live up to!

A high jinks parade precedes the first Blue Man Group show of the day. Photo by Denise Truscello.

They’ve borrowed from the Cirque playbook and prep the audience with pre-performance tomfoolery.  One-eyed, puffer fish circle overhead, one wearing a red and orange skullcap with braids, another sporting pendant earrings.  White lights trace patterns across the ceiling.  Electronic signs tell jokes and poke fun with ersatz “news” and end with “It’s time to take the electronic equipment oath.”

It’s almost like a three-ring circus:  First—Music played on rainbow-hued plumbing pipes, their original signature talent with an expanded repertoire, which is still inventive entertainment; Second—slapstick comedy including a regurgitation skit featuring Twinkies (one reason the first few rows of the audience wear plastic ponchos), plus an audience member donning protective gear, being dunked in a vat of paint, and then painting a happy face on a big canvas with his bum; and, Third, Hollywood-worthy techno-geek electronic spectacles—three gigantic “iPads” displaying wisecracks and serving as a “mirror” for silhouetted antics, the aforementioned tour of the brain, and, most innovative, an auto assembly line of robots, some computer-generated, but two “real” ones that look like praying mantises with red electric eyes.

High-tech graphics, music-making Technicolor plumbing pipes, and two bands rock the Blue Man Group theater. Photo by Denise Truscello.

The audience gets fitness time when beach balls on steroids appear for them to toss around the theater and also when asked to stand and “shake” their collective “booties.”  A wind system propels crepe-paper streamers of varying widths across the theater, draping the audience in a blizzard of white.  One “blue man” prowls the aisles with a hand-held TV camera, searching for unsuspecting people to embarrass.

So, by the end of the show, has the Blue Man Group lived up to their hype?  Ignore the PR overkill.  Go with the flow.  Rev up your sense of humor, marvel at the music, tune into the technology, and have a good time.  Arrive 45 minutes before the first show of the night to get in the mood with a parade of zany high jinks.

The Blue Man Group lets off steam. Photo by Denise Truscello.


Food, wine, and travel writer/editor Marilyn LaRocque has visited the seven continents, experiencing not only sights and sounds but also foods and wines. In Paris in May, she was named Vice Chargée de Presse Nationale, Des Etats Unis, of Les Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the world’s oldest and largest food and wine society. She was Senior Food & Wine Editor for LUXURY Las Vegas magazine for nearly 10 years and immersed herself in the cuisine scene in this over-the-top city. She knows and has written about celebrity chefs, their restaurants, and food and reported dining trends not only in Las Vegas but throughout the world, from South Africa to Scandinavia, New Zealand to South America. She knows master sommeliers and mixologists and has written extensively about wines and spirits, particularly California, as well as Oregon, Virginia, and Kentucky (Bourbon) and Tennessee (Whiskey). She has dined at globally celebrated restaurants such as Taillevent (Paris), Noma (Copenhagen), Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (London), Per Se (New York), and French Laundry (Yountville). She has served as a judge in culinary competitions, been guest lecturer at Le Cordon Bleu, Las Vegas, and served as PR consultant for the 2012 UNLVino, Nevada’s oldest and largest wine event. Photo by Jim K. Dekker