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‘Ka’ is back, and so is Cirque, finally, on the Strip

Updated November 26, 2021 - 12:31 am

The Final Battle carried new meaning, for a show that spent 19 months fighting back to the stage.

“Ka” bounced back Wednesday night at MGM Grand. Cirque du Soleil’s most lavish production, with a $165 million outlay and 300 cast members. The production checks Cirque’s final box among shows returning to the Strip from the company’s interminably long COVID-forced pause.

Importantly, some 1,250 Cirque employees are back to work in Las Vegas.

Cirque du Soleil Cirque du Soleil Senior Vice President Eric Grilly took his position with the company about four months before the universal entertainment shutdown in March 2020 He has now seen all five Cirque shows come back, with “Mystere” at Treasure Island, “O” at Bellagio,”MJ One” at Mandalay Bay, and “Love” at the Mirage, in that order, preceding “Ka” to the stage.

The MGM Grand spectacle, which opened in February 2005, was held because the grandiose production carried large-scale challenges. The show was originally planned to reopen in October, then nudged back to Thanksgiving weekend.

“It’s a massive theater, with a very large cast and a very large technical crew needed to operate it,” Grilly said before Wednesday’s relaunch. “We added an additional couple weeks of rehearsal, time to factor in that … We had to replace a number of technicians, given the timing of the show, as well as a number of artists. But even with integration of that many people, you’re going to see a beautiful show.”

As has been evident in all of Cirque’s returns, the company spent the shutdown remaining sharp. The show delighted the packed house in the 1,950-seat theater. The show returned such signature elements as the Wheel of Death, attacks on the stage by archers and spearmen, the bumbling Valets clown characters, and the Imperial Guard martial artists.

The show’s two stage decks are back in the show, including its Sand Cliff Deck, which rotates 360 degrees and tilts toward the crowd to allow video projection. By the time the 80 “rod actuators” begin sprouting from the deck so performers can climb and fall when the stage is vertical, you know Cirque has returned to form.

“There are a handful of new artists that have been added to the show, but no material changes have been made,” Grilly said, and mentioned some elements of the show that were upgraded just as he stepped into his administrative role still remain. “The show did get a bit of a refresh in 2019. It is in beautiful shape.” The full-house, standing ovation served as “Ka’s” exclamation mark.

Box-office acrobatics

As has been the case for Cirque since it reopened “Mystere” on June 28 and “O” on July 1, the cast and crew are required to be vaccinated and non-verbal performers are in face covers. The theater staff wields “Masks Up” signs as readily as performers brandishes their crossbows, as audience members are required to wear face masks when not “actively” eating or drinking.

The result, not just for Cirque but for several production shows, has been a dip in attendance after the original burst from “Mystere” and “O” reopening, when those shows were selling out nearly every performance through July and into August.

Producers have pointed to the masking concerns as a leading reason for the drop in numbers, in some cases up to a 40 percent slide since indoor mask mandates were returned in late July.

Reportedly, Cirque’s midweek numbers, outside of “Mystere” and “O” had dropped, and “Love” has slipped for all nights. But Grilly said the slide could be attributed to the original rush of fans arriving to satisfy pent-up demand, with the pendulum swinging back as that community returned the shows they wanted to see.

“It was unbelievable to be nearly 100 percent sold out for ‘O’ and ‘Mystere’ through the summer, then we saw the traditional seasonal drop we’ve seen right around Labor Day,” Grilly said. “We had a lot more families here than in years past, and we can see a dip due to the fact that they returned home to get their kids back in school.”

Grilly says business has rebounded, like a Cirque acrobat in a bungee harness.

“We’re having a fantastic November across all shows,” Grilly said. “Every show will be at, or above, pre-pandemic levels.”

What is next

“Zumanity” was the Cirque show that did not survive pandemic, shut down permanently in November 2020. Cirque has since been developing a new show and refreshing the former Zumanity Theater. Aside from a limited engagement from ventriloquial ace Terry Fator, and a one-off from the drag show “Bianca del Rio,” the venue has been latent.

The show will carry a New York-fashioned theme. It is probably opening in the second quarter, or spring, of 2022.

“We’re still finalizing plans with our partners at MGM Resorts for that offering,” Grilly said. “We haven’t decided on a name yet, but we are narrowing it down.”

The production will different from the extravaganzas that have been a Cirque trademark since “Mystere” opened in 1993. The theater, though gorgeous in Cirque’s tradition on the Strip, is long overdue for a makeover.

“We’re going to introduce things that you’ve not seen as a Cirque show before,” Grilly said. “The theater is 19 years old, right? So obviously, it needs to be updated. There’s been a lot of advancements in technology in terms of sound, lighting, projection mapping, that we’ll be able to take advantage of and we’ve used across our other shows.

“And then, it’s going to be a very different type of experience, both in terms of the intimacy of the seating as well as the food- and-beverage component to it.” That would give Cirque six shows on the Strip, not including such acquisition partnerships as Blue Man Group and “America’s Got Talent: Live” (through The Works Entertainment), both at Luxor.

The company that seemed all but finished in the spring of 2020 has bounced back, expertly.

Tour time

Cirque has been buoyed outside of Vegas, with return of the standout production “Alegria” in Houston, and the long-delayed, Cirque-Disney partnership “Drawn To Life” has opened at Disney World in Orlando. Reviews of that creatively fertile collaboration have been positive. Even longtime Cirque officials have cried during its premiere.

Disney characters are woven into a series of traditional Cirque acts, sketched in silhouette form. The show serves as an homage to Disney’s elegant animation, and Cirque’s dazzling acrobatics.

Cirque does the bulk of its business in Vegas, and the Strip is its artistic headquarters, but the company remains an international entity, and is bringing back several of the 44 touring shows knocked down by COVID. Over the top of all this activity is the investment of its new ownership group, led by Capital Catalyst Group, is a robust investment firm out of Toronto.

“Our touring division has reopened, finally, so a very important part of our company is now back in operation with the opening of ‘Algeria’ last week, actually, the day before we opened, ‘Drawn to Life,’ ” Grilly said. “And then six additional tours will be rolled out over the next next several months, which is a pretty significant development for us to get our business back up and running.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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