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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 rooms.

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 Mirage marquee.

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 is.

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 mistake.

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 easy.

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