We're not as down on Viva Elvis as most folks, but it just didn't click as well as it should. The fault lies with Elvis Presley. He's not that interesting a human. Zarkana is a completely original production tracing Zark the magician and his journey to find the woman who will revive his magic skills and make his life whole. It's that basic. And, needs to be. Because therein lies the problem. And, its a biggie.
Songs and a live band drive the show’s story engine. When Zark first starts singing, it sounds a little Latin, a little Italian. Maybe it's an invocation from a Grimoire to summon his magic powers? Maybe Esperanto? Nope. The characters of this show sing entirely in a made-up language. Not a word is translatable to anyone. Not a word. Yes, the set is amazing, but you can't hum the scenery. And, here you can't sing the words.
And, our problem is Zark sings his story and journey through this phantasmagorical world to find his quest. There are maybe a dozen English words spoken in the entire show. And that's a problem for anyone hoping to offer empathy or sympathy for Zark on his journey. At the end of the night, he gets the girl. But, it's very hard to understand how difficult it was and how important she is to him. The often bombastic, chest-puffing Zark doesn't inspire our emotional attachment. That's fine. But, it does not make this a journey of a hero.
So, instead we have a journey into the imagination, not the heart. Various women cause Zark trouble along his path. A snake lady, a spider lady, a pickle lady and a plant lady. They have proper names, but that might help you conjure up the scenes on your own. "Surreal" they wish to call it. And ,here's where we think we worked out the show's creative origin. If you consider Zarkana a seventies rock opera, imagine someone was staring at the trippy gate-fold artwork on an imaginary double LP album and made it real on stage. Each imaginary album track unfolding songs of aliens, ghosts, demons, temptress sirens and weird alien creatures. At heart, is Zarkana a living concept album for a non-musician without a band?
Zarkana's on-stage alien creatures (called Jovians) reminded us of The Slipperman in the rock opera, the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, by the Peter Gabriel-era version of the band Genesis. That plot of that album and live show surrounds Rael as he heads into a phantasmagorical city to find his brother and meets weird and strange characters including snake ladies and a non-human covered in blobs. Oh. Think we're totally off base? During one of the many comic interludes, the two lead White Clowns in the show mime a marijuana joke. Just saying.
We digress. So, the plot is not important. How about the show? Referenced as a return to the Mystere era of Cirque theatricality, there certainly are no shortage of amp-ed circus acts. They provided the moments that energized the opening night crowd. In short, if you like the circus parts of Cirque, you’ll like what's on offer at Aria.
Some of the acts don't always stun. We’ve witnessed far better "eccentric juggling." The solo acrobat that wowed most of the crowd, slowed the pace down to a crawl for us, and just as we raced to a crescendo finale. Most will leave the theater remembering the woman who paints with sand to chronicle Zark’s progress. This sand storytelling was a favorite of the 1920s Chautauqua circuit and often used for teaching religious parables. Here she's a momentary, silent Greek chorus. It would have been nice for her to have been a permanent fixture on stage, to guide the audience through the finer plot points.
As part of the media night audience, we sat on the fifth row. The theater is incredibly comfortable, maybe the nicest seating on The Strip. The vestiges of the Elvis design are long gone and the sumptuous reds look wonderful. Pre-show, many performers interact with you. We even had our shoes shined by one character so do arrive twenty minutes early to your seat. But, even at this very close range the enormous stage feels some distance away. So much so that the element of danger also appears distant. Maybe we are spoiled by visits to the up-close and personal Absinthe and Empire this year, but we noticed a separation between us and the performers. And that felt very un-Cirque.
Inside Aria, the large bronze bust of Elvis that was the beacon to the box office has been removed and a cut-out sign has replaced it. Perhaps it's temporary, but it lacks the air of permanence. We sense Zarkana has a struggle to win the hearts of this city and prove immortal. Which is not what we wanted to experience. We firmly believe if you are visiting Las Vegas, a Cirque show should be part of your priorities. It's worth it. But should Zarkana be the first choice you should see? With the options currently available to you, it sadly shouldn't even be your third.