Cirque du Soleil: Criss Angel’s Believe
Luxor Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas
For anyone in the business of reviewing theatrical productions—or for anyone attempting to critique anything as illusive and subjective as the creation of any artform—the most important thing is to maintain a perpetual sense of wonder for this miraculous evolution of the decidedly intangible. The ability to enter every situation with a blank slate is the key, but since most of us crusty old critics spend several nights a week dissecting everything we see in print for public consumption, it’s easy to get a tad jaded and lose that initial sense of amazement, to somehow gradually compromise our original hushed respect for the creative process.
Keeping this in mind, the reviews of Cirque du Soleil’s sixth and newest permanent Las Vegas extravaganza, Criss Angel’s Believe, which opened Halloween night at the sadly un-Egyptifying Luxor Hotel, have been decidedly mixed. For me, the problem is that most critics have forgotten to wipe away all those nasty expectations and have failed to keep that slate clear as though they’ve never seen a Cirque du Soleil production performed before. Guaranteed, if this had been the first exposure to the continuously stellar work offered by the Cirque—or, for that matter, a first look at the individual style and signature talents of Criss Angel—those same writers would have been sufficiently awestruck.
This must also be the problem for a lot of patrons not in the business of writing about theatre but instead perhaps, as diehard Cirque du Soleil fans, think Angel’s in-your-face style of non-traditional roughhewn sleight-of-hand gets in the way of the company’s lyrical dreamlike splendor, while the generally rabid Angel fans must equally feel balletic rabbits and Eric Serra’s ethereal musical score have nothing to do with watching their Joe Pesci-voiced rockstar-y Goth-dripping New Yaawk-bred cult hero let himself be run over by 20-ton industrial steamrollers. See, again: if no one had any preconceptions of what to expect, I’m convinced no one would be disenchanted with Believe for a minute.
Angel says Believe is the culmination of a lifelong dream and frankly, I for one think he should be proud as hell for what he has accomplished along with the inimitable sanction of the Cirque’s unwavering and unrestricted support for the innovative methods its artists need to create. As Cirque founder and perpetual guide Guy Laliberte commented at a press conference in the Believe theatre the afternoon of the production’s glittery opening night gala, “What we’ve concocted together is a blend of the Cirque’s artistic knowledge with the mysteries of what is Criss’ magic.”
Don’t let anyone tell you different: this is a haunting one-of-a-kind production that truly defies anyone’s expectations, even the creators’ original concepts, I’m sure.
Believe begins with a loud and trendily choppy video montage of scenes from Angel’s ultra-popular TV cable series Mindfreak before the often pleasantly bare-chested star of the show descends from above to perform a few stock Copperfield-esque audience participation tricks—all perhaps added after comments from the first preview audiences polled signaled there was too much Cirque and not enough magic.
Soon an “accident” during a demonstration featuring high voltage supposedly turns Angel into a bubbling overcooked version of Freddy Krueger with help from the Cirque’s longtime make-up designer Nathalie Gagne, but of course, he ain’t down yet. This nightly staged tragedy only allows the guy to pull himself out of his hat and levitate above the televised gurney racing his smoldering ass (no pun intended) to the hospital followed by stagehands, EMTs, and news crews. He rises like the east coast street phoenix that he has become and dramatically alters from monstrous crispy critter to enter into a bizarrely otherworldly fantasy journey all his own and that of his director and Believe’s co-writer Serge Denoncourt.
Here, Angel wanders off into a gorgeously psychedelic hallucination inhabited by demonic forest creatures of all shapes, sizes and robotic functions on a sweepingly dark and grandly atmospheric set by Ray Winkler. It’s suddenly an Alice in Wonderland-inspired world where rubbery Donnie Darko-clad aerialists from various places in Eastern Europe so familiar to Cirque audiences soar and dip high above the stage and the proscenium arch, while duly amazing Michael Curry puppets, including a giant burned six-sectioned Criss Angel voodoo doll that’s put back together in grandly Guingoled Frankenstein monster style, romp and evolve. Throughout it all, exceptional performances by a graceful ensemble of world-class dancers working under the guidance of master choreographer Wade Robson complete Believe’s elegant chimera.
Although opening night had its glitches, particularly when the usual saw-in-half illusion, which could be so wonderful as updated to feature dripping tendrils of intestines hanging from Angel’s two wriggling halves as though it were from some original movie on the Sci-Fi Channel, was ruined by the fact that the body parts were separated and spun around before the chainsaw ever hit the box, Angel is still continually fascinating in his raucous and rough-edged street performer’s ability to make doves appear from satin sleeves and operates with smooth precision when asked to escape from a straightjacket suspended Houdini-like over the audiences’ heads.
As he explores this magnificently peculiar new world, Angel makes magic—though surprisingly, all fairly standard illusions. There are hints of pure brilliance here, but also the overall feeling remains that… well… this show will be absolute dynamite a few months from now when it cures and ages and grows into something even more individually spectacular. One of the things still needed in the fine tuning of Believe is coaching for Angel himself, a guy who’s obviously a major, major player as a showman but not yet someone who has found his sea-legs as an actor.
Unfortunately, when the magician claims Believe’s obviously well rehearsed illusions are spontaneous and unplanned, one can’t buy it for a second. And when he’s zapped by into la-la-land by what he proclaims to be six million volts and the Wizard of Oz-themed story takes over for the initial live session of magic tricks, suddenly Angel seems to be a duck out of water. His heavily Lon-gah Island-tinged accent becomes even more strident, coming off not unlike classic Tony Curtis pointing out “Yondah lies da castle of my fadda” as it lingers and echoes smackdab in middle of the gossamer Victorian filigree motif that weaves throughout the show.
But I tell you, all Believe needs is an open-minded audience (and critics) willing to suspend preconceived expectations and a little judicious seasoning, especially considering how often parts of all the Cirque’s permanent Sin City shows transform and mature over time. Add in that Criss Angel, whose exceptional talents, unstoppable imagination, and streetwise charisma are the heart and soul of this show—and that he’s contracted to headline Believe at the Luxor, which is also his primary residence, for the next 10 years—I suspect by the time this one reaches a milestone anniversary like “O” and Mystere have attained, it will have developed into one of Cirque du Soleil’s most impressive Vegas efforts to date.