MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas
Back in the fall of 2008, a talent scout from Cirque du Soleil found a photo of LA actress Jeana Blackman on the Now Casting website and sent an email asking if she might be interested in auditioning for the role of the King of Rock’s beloved mother in their 7th Las Vegas production, the surely monumental upcoming Elvis Presley extravaganza set to open next year at the MGM/Mirage Corporation’s new Aria Hotel at the much-awaited City Center complex.
“After figuring out that it wasn’t a scam—I mean, who would believe that Cirque du Soleil would just contact me out of the blue?—I went to the audition,” Blackman relates. “A few months later, I got an email saying that I had been a finalist for Gladys, but didn’t get the role.” Such is the life of any actor, of course, but it doesn’t make that kind of news any less disappointing when it arrives.
Soon after, however, fortunes turned for Blackman, who was contacted by the Cirque again and asked to submit a tape of a dance and a dramatic improvisation, as the role of the Nursemaid in their smash hit production KÀ at MGM Grand was open. “A few days after sending it, I was asked to come to Vegas for a live audition,” remembers Blackman. “They flew me out, put me up, and treated me to the show, [which] was incredible. I auditioned on Thursday—more improv, more movement—and the artistic director stepped into another room with the casting director for a brief chat. They called me in a few moments later and offered me the role!”
It’s almost impossible to believe a performer without a lifelong gymnastics background was chosen to play the Nursemaid, which requires an extensive amount of calisthenics and acrobatics, as well as some dazzlingly nosebleed-y aerial effects. Meeting for coffee with our mutual friend Travis Wood during our week-long sensory-deprived junket to Vegas last month—and between Blackman’s grueling training, classes, and fittings in preparation for her upcoming KÀ debut—the actress admitted one of the questions she was asked over and again during that initial audition process was if she was afraid of heights. Primary, that question, I would think. Essential.
When the eyeball-melting KÀ first opened at the hotel in 2005, the Chicago Tribune suggested that Vegas had finally replaced New York as the theatrical capital of the United States. This is mainly due to the Cirque’s continued willingness to risk spending the kind of money there that Broadway cannot. I would assume even David Merrick wouldn’t have financed an original untried and unproven production to the tune of $165 million, the amount reportedly dropped by the Cirque and MGM/Mirage to mount KÀ. I guess that’s why Vegas is famous for gambling.
It’s hard to know where to begin to describe KÀ, so let me start with the ending. On the 149-foot high stage of the newly created $105 million KÀ Theatre—or the place where a stage would be if there were one—the show culminates with a majestic fireworks display.
On the stage…
Inside the hotel…
Inside a hotel which was notoriously destroyed by fire in 1980.
Remembering that the old MGM Grand was located where Bally’s now stands and the threat of fire is virtually nonexistent nearly 30 years later in this modernized version of the hotel, where the stage should be in the KÀ Theatre is the place members of the crew and company call The Void, a huge fire-belching gaping hole descending into the depths of the Vegas desert sands 51-ft. below audience level. Two enormous hydraulic steel decks, one 25’ x 50’ and the other 30’ x 30’, move at speeds to 60-ft. a second—and often with people executing outlandish stunts on them. Not only do the decks slide into place over The Void, they have the capability to rotate 360 degrees and tilt from horizontal to vertical.
This is nowhere more unbelievable than in one massive battle scene, where performers square off to fight, then slowly become perpendicular to the audience, as though watching an overhead scene in a Busby Berkeley movie. The performers power their movements with a series of winches controlled by wireless remotes built into their costumes and, as their feet or bodies hit the now-vertical stage, pools of iridescent dark purple light spread out around them in psychedelic splendor. These video projections originate from overhead infrared-sensitive cameras that follow the artists’ movements, capturing and tracking them by computer.
KÀ is also the first Cirque production to feature a storyline, following adolescent twins (now played by Jennifer and Cheri Haight), their exuberant, jolly nursemaid (Blackman’s role), a court jester (Kleber Conrado Berto), and a trio of clown-like valets (Mathieu Bolillo, Jason Zulauf and Matthew Salcedo), all of whom are separated in a warlike attack upon their idyllic kingdom, sending them fleeing for their lives in opposite directions and through opposite but equally perilous journeys.
Perhaps no peril is more impressive than the sister’s sailing ship thrashing through a massive storm, in which the huge, careening vessel (completely manipulated by the artists themselves) is hurled across the front of the stage, acrobats twirling from its mast and facing breathtaking leaps into The Void on either side, all while the Nursemaid imposes some necessary gravity to the proceedings from a supine position on the severely rocking deck of the doomed ship.
And when the sister later comes upon a lush tropical forest complete with Rose Bowl float-sized snakes and centipedes crawling up the full height of the stage, a knockout character is added to the journey, an androgynous aerialist version of Tarzan known here as the Firefly Boy and played with arresting skill and death-defying courage by Pierre-Luc Sylvain.
Watching the original castmembers train in the bowels of the KÀ Theatre three days before the show’s knockout debut in February of 2005 was one of the highlights of my trip to Vegas back then for the opening festivities for KÀ—that and the opening night party at the massive MGM Arena which lasted until noon the following day. Since then, I have returned to see this extraordinary show several times and, over the last four-and-a-half years, it has for this usually jaded correspondent lost none of its power to astound.
It almost should be some sort of civic duty to head to that awesome adult Emerald City, the gorgeously Hollywood / art deco themed MGM Grand, to check out KÀ at least once on any trip to this one-of-a-kind entertainment oasis sitting all bright and shiny atop the otherwise desolate high Nevada desert. Nothing proclaims itself as representative the “new” Vegas more than this one presentation, the best of Cirque du Soleil’s six permanent attractions on the Strip filling houses nightly despite our country’s current financial woes. Recession? Did anyone say recession? Not in Las Vegas, it seems.
And now there’s LA’s own Jeana Blackman on deck (literally) in KÀ to play the Nursemaid, a grand reason for yet another look at the worldclass wonder that is this show. To live vicariously about the process of landing (no pun intended) her one-of-a-kind new job and living through rehearsals in preparation for joining the cast, check out the continuing saga of Blackman’s personal journey at www.jeanablackman.com. It’s a real treat.
KÀ plays indefinitely at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas; for tickets, call 877.264.1844.