As much as by its ever-changing casino skyline and massive population boom, the evolution of Las Vegas can be traced back through its showrooms. From dancers in headdress to aerialists in face paint, dazzling magicians to Broadway-voiced crooners, and white tigers to sock puppets, this town has opened its stages to a wild array of performances over the past six decades, loosely grouped under the umbrella “production show.”
In this issue of Las Vegas Weekly, we’ve identified and ranked what we believe to be the best of those productions, with three key criteria in mind: influence, Vegas-ness and quality. We prioritized that last element above all else—if we had access to a time machine and could send a Vegas visitor back only to the most fantastic shows, which would they be? You’ll notice some of the biggest names in the city’s entertainment history—Elvis, Liberace, Celine, Sinatra, Penn & Teller—aren’t here, and it’s not because they aren’t deserving of a spot on a list of greats. Just not this list. When we ranked Vegas’ all-time greatest headliners in December 2012, those names all ranked near the top, so when we undertook this exercise, we decided a true “production” show required a large, ensemble cast and/or grand theatricality and staging. So Cirque, yes; Garth and his guitar, not so much. But enough about logistics. On to our list, and the endless debates it’s certain to inspire …
20. Crazy Girls
Now showing at Planet Hollywood after almost 29 years at the suddenly nonexistent Riviera, Crazy Girls might be the most identifiable of the Strip’s burlesque productions, introducing its take on erotic acrobatics at the Riv in September 1987. It wasn’t until 1994 that the infamous, bare-cheeked “No ifs, ands, or …” marketing blitz pushed the show to icon status, as local elected officials fought to remove the then-risque images from billboards and taxicabs. The “good luck” bronze statue born from that photo shoot still gets groped to this day.
19. Vegas Nocturne
Produced by Absinthe’s Spiegelworld in 2014, Vegas Nocturne was a cabaret variety show unlike any other this city has seen. It took place in a showroom built specially for it (the Cosmopolitan’s Rose. Rabbit. Lie.), designed to look like the mansion home of an eccentric family. It featured everything from tap dancers to acrobats to human beatboxes, and no two shows were identical. Unfortunately, a heated feud between Spiegelworld and the Cosmo killed the production after just one year.
Dubbed by producer Jeff Kutash as “an aquacade of music and dance,” Splash, which debuted at the Riviera in 1985 and closed in 2006, was a kind of pre-O with a variety-show slant. Pyrotechnics, laser lights and aquatic choreography executed by hot dancers in a cool, 20,000-gallon tank were at the center of the visual feast. Garnishing that was a tossed salad of acts: comedians, ice skaters, jugglers, even motorcycle riders inside a metal sphere. Oh, and the dancers were topless. Variety, laughs, thrills and skin in one big, literally splashy package—Vegas, baby!
17. Lance Burton, Master Magician
Burton accomplished much even before his show’s 1996 debut, including several television specials and a Hacienda residency. His Monte Carlo show distilled that accumulated experience into a family-friendly magic spectacular replete with showgirls, stunning special effects and enormous set pieces (most notably a vanishing Corvette). It was such the crowd-pleaser that Burton quietly retired from the stage after the show closed in 2010, content he’d given his all.
The easy summary: Cirque with boobs. (Zumammary?) But the 13-year-old New York-New York cabaret presentation is more than that. After the big-top whimsy of Mystère and the hi-tech water ballet O, Cirque du Soleil stripped down figuratively and literally by honing in on both the actors’ physical feats and their physical assets, balancing classic aerial awe with bountiful libido. Cirque’s first R-rated show managed to reset burlesque for the post-millennial Strip, paving the way for Peepshow and Absinthe.
15. Lido de Paris
When it opened in 1958 at the Stardust, Lido de Paris set a new standard in spectacle. It wasn’t the first French, costumed showgirl-centric production, but it was the biggest and most expensive of its era, drawing wide-eyed crowds to what was likely Vegas’ first custom-built showroom, complete with elevators and an orchestra pit. Nouvelle Eve, Folies Bergere, Minsky’s Follies and others followed in its wake. When Sam Boyd refused to grant producer Donn Arden yet another elevation in budget, Lido finally fizzled out in 1991.
In 2004, a year after debuting the minimalist Zumanity, Cirque premiered its most ambitious production to date: the $165 million KÀ, in which the Canadian entertainment company tried its hand at both martial arts (yes!) and a storyline (meh). But the show is perhaps best known for its signature set piece: an impressively mobile, 50-ton, 50-foot-long Sand Cliff Deck platform onto which performers astonishingly scale, descend and do battle. KÀ’s technical marvel remains unmatched.
13. An Evening at La Cage
With a 23-year run at the Riviera, this offshoot of the NYC and LA restaurant/club La Cage Aux Folles proved that even Middle America loves a good drag show. And its mistress of ceremony Frank Marino must love a good lawsuit, because the one quickly filed (then dropped) by his inspiration Joan Rivers made him and the show an instant Strip hit. After its 2009 closure, Marino reimagined it as Divas Las Vegas, the Linq show extending its legacy and Marino’s marathon Strip reign.
12. Phantom—The Las Vegas Spectacular
By the time the final curtain fell on Harold “Hal” Prince’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic magnum opus in 2012, more than 2,600 shows had been performed inside the custom-built theater at the Venetian. Theatergoers were immersed into Phantom’s dark, twisted and romantic obsession with ingénue Christine. The production’s sounds, sights, songs and sets—including a trip deep into the catacombs and a stunning crash from an even more stunning chandelier—impressed millions of visitors and infused a unique glitz that was wholly Las Vegas.
11. Blue Man Group
Las Vegas had little experience with surrealist performance art before Blue Man Group brought it to the Luxor in 2000. While BMG’s producers were doubtlessly optimistic about the show’s odds—successful BMG productions were already running in other cities—they couldn’t have known Vegas would go nuts for bald blue men playing PVC pipe organs and stuffing their mouths with marshmallows. In their inimitable way, BMG raised the ceiling on what Strip audiences will accept.
10. De La Guarda
De La What, you ask? Recall the 800-capacity tent just outside the Rio back in October 2000. It housed the De La Guarda Argentinian acrobat troupe, a then-NYC sensation that had the cast performing its narrative-less show over—and among—the standing-room-only crowd. It was a refreshing contrast to the usual showroom fare and a sort of thrilling, interactive and effect-laden spectacle that befit Las Vegas. Like so many Broadway imports, its shelf life didn’t last a year, but it remains one of the most audacious and expectation-thwarting productions Vegas has ever staged.
9. David Copperfield
Get used to seeing this face on your significant other when you’re watching a David Copperfield performance: wide-eyed wonder, coupled with a jaw that feels like it’s hitting the floor. Whether you’ve seen him once or dozens of times, Copperfield does not feel of this realm. His smooth, easy charm and self-effacing manner set you up perfectly for the seemingly impossible illusions that follow. You know that what you’re seeing isn’t real; Copperfield isn’t trying to insult your intelligence. But try as you might to resist the urge, you’ll find yourself asking over and over, “How did he do that?”
8. Jersey Boys
Las Vegas has seen its share of Broadway productions, but few clicked like this musical based on the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. From the razor-sharp script courtesy of Marshall Brickman to the performances of Travis Cloer as Valli and Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, this show delivered laughs, tears and nostalgia like few Vegas productions had before. Oh, and having some of the greatest pop songs in history didn’t hurt. Jersey Boys began its run at the Palazzo and ended it eight years later on September 18 at Paris, making it the longest-running Broadway-to-Vegas show to date.
Cirque du Soleil’s most magnificent production begs to be seen over and over—there’s so much going on every second, it’s almost overwhelming. But that’s really the point of O: It’s larger than life in every way. From the lush red curtain that gets swallowed up as the show opens to the stage itself, which transforms from dry land to an ocean in the blink of an eye, you’ll feel a powerful connection to what’s transpiring in front of, to the side of and above you. The Cirque phenomenon in Las Vegas might have taken off with Mystère, but O perfected it.
6. Folies Bergere
Nearly 50 years of toplessness and over-the-topness—how much more Vegas can you get? Inspired by the Parisian cabaret and debuting in 1959 at its only home, Tropicana, Folies was a French-style kaleidoscope of sight-and-sound treats wrapped into a variety format—singing, dancing, comedy and elaborate sets—with glamorous showgirls as the whipped cream on the sundae. How did they glide so gracefully—including up and down stairs—and not tumble into the orchestra pit while balancing 4-foot, 35-pound headdresses? Ah, such sensual mystique. Paired in the public consciousness with Jubilee!, the production elevated the showgirl to Sin City status symbol. Exotic and a bit naughty with its kick-line grandeur—cue memories of the “Can Can” finale—Folies Bergere was a half century of Classic Vegas-defining fun.
5. Siegfried & Roy
Until this legendary, long-running production at the Mirage was forcibly shuttered in 2003 after Roy Horn was seriously injured from a neck bite from one of his tigers (he survived and said the tiger was attempting to protect him), he and Siegfried Fischbacher ruled the magical desert kingdom, becoming synonymous with Vegas razzmatazz. Women were sawed in half; elephants, lions and tigers were made to vanish from inside draped cages; and the caped prestidigitators regularly disappeared and reappeared amid puffs of smoke and roaring flames, setting the standard for the legions of magicians that followed them to the Strip.
More impressive than acts of legerdemain, however, was the main contribution of this dynamic duo: showmanship. Siegfried & Roy’s super-size flair and dedication to the wow factor belong in the same Strip pantheon as the Rat Pack, Liberace and Elvis. Like those icons, their act fit snugly into the Vegas aesthetic like a neon bug in a sequined rug.
4. The Beatles Love
In 2006, Cirque du Soleil proved there was no better—and no bigger—intellectual property to license than The Beatles. Its fifth Strip show instantly distinguished itself from the others by expertly mashing Fab Four iconoclasm with Cirque’s own trademark aesthetic, and The Beatles’ classics themselves.
Every scene’s a potential favorite. The goose-pimpling kickoff of “Get Back,” featuring segments from four other songs. The moving “Blackbird”/“Yesterday” combo. The stunning aerial ballet during “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” And the dilruba-led psychedelia of “Within You Without You”/“Tomorrow Never Knows,” which plays as the entire theater becomes enveloped by a gigantic sheet. Love recently enjoyed a much-needed revamp in time for its 10th anniversary, the show now even more of a visual wonder thanks to its incorporation of projection mapping. As technology evolves, so will the show, aided by the endless inspiration potential of its unequaled soundtrack.
Though Mystère wasn’t the first Cirque du Soleil production to land in Vegas—traveling show Nouvelle Experience came to the Mirage in November 1992—it was the Christmas Day 1993 debut of this Treasure Island presentation that revealed just how much the French-Canadian theatrical company has to offer.
Mystère remains unmatched, even if the Vegas Cirque shows that followed might be more technically advanced (KÀ, O) or have broader pop-culture appeal (The Beatles Love). Its performers—the Red Bird, the big babies, the taiko drummers, the clown Brian Le Petit and others—aren’t just entertaining characters; they take circus acts that have existed for centuries and imbue them with new layers of wonder and whimsy.
For 23 years, Mystère has celebrated circus tradition and remade it nightly, showing Vegas and Cirque the sheer amount of creative (and lucrative) possibilities deeper collaboration could bring.
Naked breasts pop up. Titanic goes down. Little else is necessary to identify Jubilee!, a signature Strip production down to its tassels, towering headdresses and rainbow feather boas. After a 35-year run ending in 2015, Donn Arden’s eye-popper endures as a symbol of classic Vegas entertainment.
More than 100 showgirls and boys burst from behind the curtains when Jubilee! opened. Clad in dazzling costumes by the legendary Bob Mackie, they strutted through outrageously opulent production numbers mounted around, atop and within massive, imaginative sets, overlaid with video projections on a stage topping three stories tall. Yes, the re-created demise of the legendary ocean liner was the nightly pièce de résistance, but Jubilee! fired over-the-top set pieces at the audience like buckshot from a sequined gun. Sensory stimuli poured off the stage in waves, as performers gyrated on side balconies and descending on platforms. Jubilee! was Vegas at its glitzy, glammy, gloriously hammy best.
When Absinthe came to Las Vegas in 2011, the New York cabaret/circus hybrid faced an uphill climb. It was supposed to play at the Fontainebleau; when that mute behemoth didn’t open, Caesars Palace allowed Absinthe to pitch its tent in its front yard, albeit temporarily. Thousands of performances later, they’re still profaning the glory of Rome, and for one simple reason: A performance of Absinthe is almost criminally fun.
Absinthe is the domain of the Gazillionaire, the gold-toothed, foul-mouthed, lecherous dirtbag who runs the show, and Penny Pibbets (or her cousin, Joy Jenkins), his deliriously horny assistant. Together, they introduce the show’s variety acts: the beautiful burlesque chanteuse Melody Sweets; the goofball tightrope act Esteemed Gentlemen of the High Wire; twin tap-dance duo Sean and John Scott, and more. Oh, and Penny uses a sock puppet in a way that scandalizes you, her and cotton itself.
The true genius of Absinthe is that this scrappy production show never tips its hand. It mocks Cirque du Soleil, yet its aerial acts are every bit the equal of what you see in a Cirque show. Gaz’s interactions with the crowd, while unrelentingly crude and insulting (and funny as hell), aren’t far removed from the Rat Pack-era banter that made this town great. And yet, for the entirety of Absinthe’s 90 wildly entertaining minutes, you feel like you’ve discovered something new, or stumbled onto a secret meeting of acrobats, dancers and reprobates. And the first thing you want to do after is tell everyone you know.