Las Vegas builds its own Great White Way

In Cirque du Soleil's newest production, the acrobats do their usual death-defying deeds and the live musicians deliver the sort of thumping, high-energy score that audiences have come to expect.

And yet, the real star of "KÀ" is the theater itself. A $135-million work of wonder, it features seats with their own speakers, a Byzantine network of brass spires, planks, and catwalks where characters skulk above and around the audience, and a stage that flies through the air and changes shape, color, and texture. The performers are literally upstaged by, of all things, the stage.

That may all sound fanciful, but what's even more astonishing is that Cirque's latest home at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino is merely the most expensive and elaborate entry in what's emerging as one of Vegas's more unusual side businesses: theater building.

"Nowhere else but in Las Vegas can they build custom-made theaters for specific shows," marvels Kevin McCollum, co-creator of the Broadway hit "Avenue Q." A Las Vegas edition of the 2004 Tony winner for best musical is set to première this fall in a $40 million showroom built for it at the new Wynn Las Vegas resort. "We can invent new forms of entertainment as well as places where entertainment from the past can be presented in a really wonderful new way."

Indeed, freed of the constraints of space that are a struggle in jam-packed Manhattan, and armed with shocking amounts of money from wealthy casino conglomerates, show producers can dream far bigger and bolder than in New York. The theater at a Vegas resort is a piece of a much larger business model in which the patrons are also diners, shoppers, hotel guests, and casino players, making it worthwhile for Caesars Palace to plunge $95 million into a showroom for pop star Céline Dion, even though the hotel shares the ticket revenue with Dion and her production company.

The $135 million spent on the "KÀ" Theater, in fact, eclipses the combined cost of all new Broadway shows in a given year, says spokesman Alan Feldman of MGM Mirage, which owns the MGM Grand and five other Strip resorts.

"It's financially viable because these enormous resort hotels place so much emphasis on the show as part of their personalities," Mr. Feldman says. "We'll advertise the show more than we'll advertise the hotel. These shows are so unique and have such distinct characteristics, they become the essential must-see."

Another theater at Wynn, built for a production called "Le Reve" created by Cirque alumnus Franco Dragone, cost at least $100 million and contains a 1.5-million gallon "performance pool." Wynn spokeswoman Kimberley Ryan says none of the 2,087 seats at "Le Reve," which opens when the resort does in late April, will be more than 42 feet from the stage.

Construction boom

Next door at the Venetian Hotel-Casino, $30 million is being plunged into an 1,800-seat showroom for a new version of the venerable hit "Phantom of the Opera" that promises to take the signature chandelier-crashing scene to a different dimension, a spokesman says. Even a one-year gig for Barry Manilow that starts later this month is occasion to spend an undisclosed number of millions on renovations to a historic Las Vegas Hilton theater where Elvis Presley and Liberace performed.

"You can't do a lot of this in New York because there's just no land left and all those theaters are landmark-protected," says Michael Gill, whose Vegas-based theatrical management company is responsible for bringing "Phantom" to the Venetian in 2006 and a resident edition of "Hairspray" to the Luxor Hotel & Casino later this year. "You can't knock them down, you can't alter the integrity of the theater. And that's a problem for the kind of spectacle that Vegas is known for."

The trend dates back to when Steve Wynn, founder of Mirage Resorts Inc., built a tailor-made theater for the illusionist duo Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in the late 1980s, and then agreed to build a showroom for Las Vegas's first Cirque du Soleil production, "Mystère," as he designed the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino. "Mystère," now in its 12th year, continues to sell out at more than $100 a seat. (The costs of the "Mystère" and "Siegfried and Roy" theaters were unavailable.)

That partnership with Cirque, the Montreal-based entertainment conglomerate known for surrealistic productions featuring human acrobatics and live music, continued as Wynn plunged $80 million into a show space for the aquatic-themed "O" with a 1.5-million-gallon pool at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in 1998.

After a merger with MGM in 2000, Mirage spent $45 million on a theater for Vegas's third concurrent Cirque production, "Zumanity," at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino, before its current investment in "KÀ." Next up: MGM Mirage is spending $90 million to rebuild the Mirage venue where next year Cirque will replace the now-defunct "Siegfried and Roy" with its fifth Vegas endeavor, a tribute to the Beatles.

"We want to have an environment that's impeccably controlled and related to the show happening within it," says Lyn Heward, Cirque's president and chief operating officer. "What [MGM Mirage] affords Cirque is fabulous partners who are property developers."

No-risk ventures

Still, casino executives require safe entertainment bets before they're willing to throw such money at anything. That's why the acts coming into these expensive new environs in Las Vegas, aside from Cirque, are primarily either proven Broadway hits or top pop stars, Mr. Gill says.

Cirque, with its lengthy track record of creating shows that are expected to last a decade or more on the Strip, gets free rein because its name on the marquee seems to guarantee success.

To that end, Gill says, he doubts there'll ever be a day when Vegas operators plunge millions into a theater for a show that hasn't been pretested for its mass appeal.

"There aren't that many risk takers in Las Vegas," he says. "The casinos want something that's really good. It has to be prebranded as a hit. Casino executives like to say they're in the gaming business, not the gambling business. What they mean is, investing in new entertainment is a gamble. Casinos aren't."

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