April 23, 2008
Risks with no rewards: The perilous world of Vegas entertainment
By STEVE FRIESS
Alrighty! Finally some real action!
After a year of surefire success stories announced for Vegas,
from Bette and Cher to the Elvis-themed Cirque du Soleil show,
there is finally a sign on two significant fronts that some
genuine gambling is going on with Vegas showrooms.
The first piece of news, that Steve Wynn is dumping Spamalot
and bringing over Mirage headliner Danny Gans, has been received
by most as a sign that the granddaddy of Vegas innovation has
given up on experimentation after two successive Broadway flops.
It was cause for fellow Weekly scribe Richard Abowitz to conclude
on his LA Times blog that “Vegas is all about playing it safe.”
A fellow on my blog commented of Wynn, “It’s like he went out
on a limb, took a real risk, retreated to the same-old.” Hunter
Hillegas of RateVegas.com wrote, “Wynn got burned by Broadway
(and an O derivative), so he’s going back to the tried and true.”
But even if that’s how Wynn sees it, he’s actually quite wrong:
The Gans move is extremely risky precisely because it is a horrible
idea. And you know it’s a huge risk when you consider how likely
it is to be a mammoth embarrassment.
Fact is, Wynn is turning back to an impressionist-singer whose
ticket sales have slacked off so badly that free seats are given
away on the Internet for virtually every show.
Box office is bound to sag even further, in fact, when Gans
no longer enjoys the powerful cross-marketing ability of a large
casino chain with tentacles sticking into some 30,000 hotel
Indeed, Gans is a talent so mismanaged—somehow he’s never
done even an HBO special or a voice on The Simpsons—that he’s
got virtually no name ID outside of Vegas. Plus, his act is
so notoriously stuck in the 1990s that he must be fervently
praying for Hillary Clinton to win the election.
That Wynn has taken the headache of Danny Gans and his manager,
Chip Lightman, off MGM Mirage’s hands has prompted celebration
from those still appalled that the duo barely waited a full
week after Roy Horn was attacked by the tiger Montecore before
aggressively insisting Gans replace Siegfried & Roy on the larger
Wynn said he’s got Gans for four shows a week for 44 weeks
of the year, and that he can use the showroom for all sorts
of other headliners and acts. So his exposure is relatively
modest even if Gans pulls the old “my grandmother died” trick
whenever he’s not in the mood to perform.
But the risk is that Wynn has chosen not just to hire Gans
but also make him the face of his new, uber-elegant property,
and that could end up backfiring and actually degrading the
image of Encore.
Yet if the MGM Mirage folks think they’re in the clear, they’re
not paying enough attention to the burgeoning disaster that
is Criss Angel Believe at the Luxor. Cirque du Soleil, usually
synonymous with the safest bet in Las Vegas, is certainly going
in a new direction this time.
Indeed, with Angel, Cirque is now laying in a bed of nails
with one of the most controversial and egotistical figures on
the American pop landscape. Last week, he physically threatened
Review-Journal gossip columnist Norm Clarke, virtually ensuring
his show will never be one that “Norm Recommends” on the outside
flap of the R-J. It also promises to sour much of the Vegas
press on him, creating a tabloid PR challenge the likes of which
the Cirque folks have never had to confront.
The Cirque suits in Montreal must be sweating, but they also
failed to either make a public statement condemning Angel’s
threats or force him to apologize. They’re powerless, it seems,
and thus it’s only a matter of time before they helplessly watch
their enormous investment be hijacked by a man not given to
respecting much of anyone.
Ticket sales, I imagine, will be strong enough, but what will
Cirque do with its $100 million showroom and cast when Angel
pulls a Dave Chappelle and decides during his 10-year, 4,000-show
deal he just doesn’t want to do it anymore? From what I understand,
the contract doesn’t allow them to replace Angel, either.
This Cirque-Angel deal is reminiscent of the International
Olympic Committee’s decision to hold the 2008 summer games in
China. It seemed like a good idea at the time, what with the
potential of expanding the brand to a huge new audience and
all the promises of good behavior. Like the IOC, though, the
closer Cirque gets to opening day the less influence the company
has and the more of a mess it could be confronting.
One of the reasons Cirque’s other collaborations with identifiable
artists work so well is that Elvis and half of The Beatles are
dead, with those still alive well past their peak controversy
years. They’re also not necessary for the show to go on; Angel
Of course, the only risky thing I get to do is make predictions.
And my prediction is that Wynn will stick with Gans no matter
what if only to not have schmucks like me write about a third
As for Cirque? It’s uncharted territory. If they make it through
the full 10-year run without some major Angel snafu, they will
have convinced me—and they’re well on their way with some of
the stuff in Kà and Mystère—that they can make anything look