Entertainment

The headliner that got away

Former Zumanity host Joey Arias should have been Cirque’s first marquee star

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Zumanity.
Tomasz Rossa

I am one of just 70 people packed into an air-conditioning-less basement at an “experimental” theater in SoHo watching a gargantuan, nearly naked gender-bender stomping through a miniature set of New York City, à la Godzilla. At one point, much to the crowd’s uproarious pleasure, this monster taking Manhattan actually bites into and swallows the top of a skyscraper, the ultimate in chewing the scenery.

It is merely one outrageously campy, brilliant scene in a show that theatrically announces Andy Warhol pal Joey Arias’ triumphant return to his New York universe after five years as the hostess-with-the-moistest in Cirque du Soleil’s risqué revue Zumanity. In Arias With a Twist, the Greenwich Village legend is dropped back to Earth after being abducted for years by space aliens who, we may infer, are meant to allegorically represent the Cirque folks and Las Vegas itself.

In the show, which cost Arias and co-producer/puppeteering maestro Basil Twist about $100,000 to stage, Arias gets to do all the things onstage he really couldn’t do in the tightly scripted Cirque production still playing at New York-New York. He is at turns ridiculous, as when the aliens pleasurably probe him or when massive phalluses flail on gigantic puppets, and sincere, as when he puts his respected smoky voice to work on “All By Myself” and “You’ve Changed.” The result is a sold-out eight-month run that ended on New Year’s Eve as well as the glowing embrace of New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who opened his June review thusly: “Eat your heart out, Madonna.”

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Zumanity
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Arias With a Twist
Joey Arias

“Can you imagine this show in Vegas?” Arias cackles later over dinner at a nearby haunt, even as it’s clear he can.

And, in fact, so can I. In fact, the very reason I decided I needed to see Arias’ off-the-wall production while I was in New York last month was to confirm something I believed from the first time I learned of Arias back in 2003: Cirque missed an amazing chance when it had him in its clutches.

Joey Arias, not Criss Angel, should have been Cirque du Soleil’s first marquee headline performer. It’s understandable if, having seen Zumanity, you can’t quite picture it, because in Zumanity Arias was reduced to a freak-show bit-player stalking the stage in between acts and, most notably and painfully, leading the audience in a faux orgasm. You’d never know watching that show that Arias was a legend in his own right, a category-defying performer who could credibly channel Billie Holliday just as well as he could tell a dirty joke.

Arias With a Twist, then, is almost what Arias might have done if he had the keys to the Cirque kingdom. There are fabulously kooky costumes, bizarre puppet sidekicks, visually delicious scenery or, in Cirquespeak, “tableaus.” And there are homages to Zumanity, namely a rotating wedding cake that Arias is splayed across that evokes an orgy scene near the end of Zumanity in which the cast is arrayed on a rotating stage.

You see, Joey Arias is genuinely cutting-edge. Criss Angel, while a terrific TV magician, is all constructed weirdness and phony cool. Angel himself seems like another of his illusions: the hair, the logo, the girlfriends, the bad-boy aesthetic, even the massive hickey he sported on Larry King Live. It’s a carefully calibrated public image. Nobody can really tell who the real Criss Angel is, and that makes it harder for him to connect with audiences in live theater.

Arias, meanwhile, is truly weird. It’s not an act. The act is merely an artistic expression of his sumptuous oddities. And that’s what Cirque needed in a headliner. Not a conventional star pretending to be unconventional but a true-blue cult figure who could maintain his bona fides and let Vegas audiences feel as though they’re the edgy ones merely for coming to witness this craziness.

For his part, Arias doesn’t complain about his Vegas era, during which he lived in the Candlewood Suites, the Paradise Road motel where Cirque performers are housed when they first arrive. (Arias never moved out.) He has almost exclusively good things to say about his experience with Cirque and the thousand or so performances he clocked in Zumanity. He refused to indulge me when I suggested he was underutilized and that a lot of his part was schlocky in a bad way.

In fact, the only thing that came even remotely close to dish about the inner workings of Cirque—what I admittedly was hoping for—was when he grew quiet talking about the incident in 2007 when an aerialist slipped off her silk straps and fell 30 feet to the stage, suffering critical injuries. “That,” Arias said with a rare somberness, “happened because those artists are worked so hard that they’re tired.”

I didn’t revisit Zumanity in Arias’ last couple of years, but he insisted that by then he managed to get off some improvised zingers and have more direct interaction with people in the audience who were not plants. I just remember in the beginning hearing all of these amazing things about Arias’ cabaret shows in the Village and his brilliance as an improv comic and vocalist and being sad that so little of it was evident on the Vegas stage.

There is still hope, though. Some Cirque brass were coming to see Arias With a Twist the weekend after I saw it. They’d be visionary to let Arias craft his own multimillion-dollar star vehicle. It’d be a surefire hit in Manhattan, if not on the Strip.

I first met Arias back in 2003 when I worked on an Advocate profile of him. I picked him up at the Candlewood the day he arrived in Vegas, and I drove him in my convertible with the top down up the Boulevard at dusk. He had never been on the Strip before, and at one point he was so excited by it that he grabbed and squeezed my leg.

“Céline Dion!” he shrieked as we rode by the Colosseum. “Oh my God, Wayne Newton, I wanna see him so bad!” he cried in delight as we passed, I think, the Stardust. “Look at the lights! It’s all so tacky—I love it!”

In Arias With a Twist, Arias is cast off by the aliens and dropped back on his home planet. He should never have been released from our clutches.

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