"Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors."   ~ Ernest Hemingway



Photo by Joan Marcus

Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center for the Arts

It’s an encouraging sign of the times that musical theatre continues to reinvent itself and has begun to take some bold chances, refusing to be stuck perpetually shouting at Dover to move his bloomin’ arse or harmonizing about that bright golden haze on the meadow.

That said, Tony Marlow and Lucy Moss’ blockbuster musical Six really isn’t—a musical, I mean. Instead, it’s a glittering, raucous, electric-shock loud, neon-flashing pop concert. As such, it’s a treat unless, of course, you were intent on getting lost in a storyline rather than spend 90 intermissionless minutes watching an expanded version of Chicago’s “Cellblock Tango.”

Six is a thin retelling of the individual stories of Henry VIII’s doomed ex-wives, each of whom in turn sing out their own tragic story in powerful rock-goddess fashion under the premise that the audience is to decide which of them was the most memorable blip on the radar screen of convoluted English history.

The competition is played out directly to the audience, immediately evoking the image of one of those impressively overproduced and popular TV talent shows. One could almost envision a table set up at the front of the house with Katy Perry or Lionel Ritchie or Simon Cowell seated facing the stage ready to hold up numbers on giant cards after each number.

After the group opening “Ex-Wives,” where the ladies further summon Kander and Ebb deja vu as they stand in a line across the front of the Pantages stage and alternately wail about their fate (“Divorced, beheaded, died / Divorced, beheaded, survived”), the six performers rocking this tour are equally dynamic as they belt out Marlow and Moss’ infectious Tony-winning score.

One by one, Khaila Wilcoxen as Catherine Aragon, Olivia Donaldson as Anna of Cleves, Courtney Mack as Katherine Howard, and Gabriella Carrillo as Catherine Park prove themselves worthy of popstar chops, while the pint-sized but fierce Storm Lever seems to be channeling early Kristin Chenoweth as Anne Boleyn.

Natalie Paris, who originated the role of Jane Seymour in the musical’s initial West End debut and received an Olivier nomination for her performance, is still the standout here, graced with delivering the score’s most memorable ballad, “Heart of Stone.”

The infamous demise of King VIII’s sextet of marital victims is surely an unlikely inspiration for a pop musical which, behind the splash and razzle-dazzle, celebrates feminist activism and the battle against misogyny and female victimization—albeit a tad incongruous as set in Tudor-era London. Yet under the direction of Moss and Jamie Armitage and featuring spirited choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, there’s something oddly empowering about this unexpected worldwide theatrical phenomenon that began humbly in 2017 performed by Cambridge University students at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

With an exceptional all-female band led by musical director/keyboardist Valerie Maze, Flash Gordon-meets-Grace Jones Tony-winning costuming by Gabriella Slade, incredibly evocative lighting by Tim Deiling, and concert-worthy sound by Paul Gatehouse, Six gets its audience up and moving by its Spice Girl-y finale. Still, if you’re looking for a plot, a character arc, and maybe even some emotionally charged resolution within the confines of ancient (albeit fictionalized) British history, better wait for the current New York revival of Camelot to hit the road.

You might need to be of my generation to understand this reference, but I give Six an eight: it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

THROUGH JUNE 10: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.982.2787 or broadwayinhollywood

JUNE 13 THROUGH 25: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

A New Brain 

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Celebration Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center

In 1992, Falsettos’ Tony-winning composer William Finn started to experience dizziness, blurred vision, and partial paralysis. After collapsing in a restaurant, he was rushed to a hospital where doctors discovered he was suffering from arteriovenous malformation in his brain stem.

After undergoing radical gamma knife surgery, during his subsequent year of forced rest and recuperation Finn said he felt as though he had a whole new brain. Driven by his art as he has always been and with the help of his longtime collaborator James Lapine, they pair turned his traumatic personal experience into—what else?—a musical.

Writing about his fear of dying before creating his finest work, A New Brain began in a concert version at the Public Theatre in 1996, featuring all those tunes rattling around in Finn's healing but still prolific head during his ordeal and dealing with his efforts to get back to work.

The first full staging at Lincoln Center in 1998 began the journey of Finn’s most personal work, which after its five-month off-Broadway run has been performed infrequently over the ensuing years since musicals about demon barbers and phantoms haunting opera houses seem to be something potentially more entertaining to the general public then finding a production about surviving a brain aneurysm as a possible fun night out.

In its return to production after our dastardly three-year nightmare which has killed off so many small LA theatre companies, the scrappy Celebration Theatre has chosen A New Brain as its first post-pandemic offering, now being presented in association with the LA LGBT Center.

This particular musical is a daring choice for Celebration’s return, especially with a spirited cast of 10 crowded onto the Center’s charming but teenyweeny Davidson/Valentini stage where director Khanisha Foster and choreographer Alli Miller-Fisher have done yeoman’s duty keeping their cast from banging into one another in about an 18-by-30-foot playing space.

Joined by musical director/keyboardist Gregory Nabours conducting a knockout four-member band placed behind curtains above and behind the stage on Stephen Gifford’s remarkably facile set, which utilizes the aisles and actors often standing directly adjacent to its audience manners, the fact that this works and stays in continual motion is a major accomplishment commendable in every regard.

As Finn’s alter ego, Amanda Kruger is in excellent voice as the show’s helpless protagonist Gordon Schwinn, although it’s disappointing there’s not a more concrete character arc presented here. Gordon’s initial frustration and anguish writing songs for a creatively stifling TV children’s show, the difficulties putting up with well-meaning but often annoying people hovering around their hospital room, and the eventual trials of the recuperation process, all track in about the same emotional range.

Kruger is still lovable, nicely interacting with their dynamic and delightfully eager supporting cast. Yassi Noubahar provides a wonderful complement as Gordon’s lover Roger, based on Finn’s own longtime life partner Arthur Salvadore. Gina Torrecilla as Gordon’s well-meaning but smothering mother Mimi and Sade Ayodele as their bestie Rhoda are standouts, as is Ryan O’Connor (obviously the secret lovechild of Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly) as the obligatorily flamboyant night nurse Richard.

Richardson Cisneros-Jones is hilarious as Gordon’s father and also as Mr. Bungee, the life-sized bullfrog star of the children’s series who pops in and out of the overthinking patient’s dreams, although someone should tell the actor it’s not necessary to project his voice to the back tier of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's many balconies when audience members are seated literally a foot away.

Whitney Avalon, Jason Ryan, Mitchell Johnson, and Gabi Van Horn are infectious as various individuals converging on Gordon’s busy and tuneful hospital room, but the true stars of this Brain-trust are the talented team of Foster and Miller-Fisher, who are so incredibly good at keeping these players moving in such a cramped space that if they directed and choreographed the folks waiting in line at DMV, they could make a trip to renew one’s driver’s license an enjoyable experience.

As much as I wholeheartedly support this revival presented as gender-expansive in its casting choices, I also think it’s rather a disservice to the production to make a point of that decision and advertise A New Brain with such a clear emphasis on that choice.

Lapine and Finn already tickled the norm 25 years ago by writing a play about a gay character named Gordon and his boyfriend Roger, something that in no way changes the nature of the couple's commitment to one another.

For me, colorblind and gender-fluid casting has been a non-issue for a long time in the more socially advanced world of the arts—and particularly in the world of theatre. It takes about 30 seconds flat to get past any initial surprise, which solidifies once again how truly unimportant race or gender is in how we respond to people and the joys and dilemmas they face in life.

Especially in a presentation mounted by the Celebration Theatre, one of our country’s oldest and most respected companies presenting mostly LGBT content over the past 41 years in operation, there simply seems to be no need for making a point of gender issues here since it has nothing to do with Gordon’s journey.

I know of no history of rednecks and evangelicals picketing theatres that have previously brought A New Brain to fruition over the last quarter century because its protagonists are in a same sex relationship. William Finn and James Lapine have written a musical about two people who love each other and everyone else depicted in their story has no issue with their relationship that a director or casting director would need to work around.

This cleverly staged and charmingly human production stands on its own quite nicely without any need to point out that the gender fluidity in its ensemble makes it a “unique opportunity to see A New Brain in Los Angeles as it has never been done before.” What’s far more important here is how each of us identifies with coming face to face with our own mortality and to understand Gordon’s greatest fear: to leave the planet with our best songs still unwritten.

THROUGH JUNE 24: Los Angeles LGBT Center, Davidson/Valenti Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. 323.860.7300 or lalgbtcenter.org/ticketsp

A Little Night Music 

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Pasadena Playhouse

Before the opening night performance of Pasadena Playhouse’s glorious 50th anniversary revival of Stephen Sondheim’s multi-Tony winning A Little Night Music, producing artistic director Danny Feldman explained how the esteemed State Theatre of California strategized to overcome our theatrical community’s otherwise anemic post-pandemic return to live performance.

He basically went to the Playhouse’s top donors and told them if the place they loved was going to be able to come back, it was time to cough it up—albeit gently, I presume.

The donors came through spectacularly, financing what must be the 99-year-old institution’s most ambitious season, including a massive tribute to the memory of our greatest American composer who left the world so much richer in 2021.

After the Playhouse’s magnificent mounting of Sunday in the Park with George in February, I wondered how they could possibly match such an achievement—especially tackling Night Music which, though honored worldwide for its incomparable score and classically stiff-backed tribute to the world of American musical theatre beyond real good clambakes and problems with Maria, it's definitely a piece that can fall flat onto its voluminous petticoats.

Au contraire, my friends, this production is an absolute wonder, especially presented with Wilson Chin’s exquisite scenic design impressively lit by Jared A. Sayeg and framed within the Playhouse’s ornate century-old Spanish Colonial Revival proscenium arch. Simply, Pasadena Playhouse is the quintessential venue to present this particular musical masterpiece.

Utilizing the auditorium’s built-in side stages to extend the playing space and bring the action even closer to its appreciative audience, director David Lee’s staging is sweeping and lyrical, an undertaking that could easily rival anything offered in any venerable Broadway house at any point in time.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s celebrated 1955 romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, frequently chosen as one of the most important films of all time, Sir Steve’s musical adaptation also takes place in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, where below the austere manners and proper social decorum, the private lives of the participants are anything but virtuous.

With a worldclass ensemble cast able to bridge both the punctilious and the lascivious natures of the story’s participants, Lee and company have managed to pay consummate homage to both the complex compositions and subtle risqué humor of Sondheim, not always something successfully executed.

Merle Dandridge is revelatory as the morally ambiguous Desiree Armfeldt, a well-known actress noted not only for conquering the classic stage roles but also commandeering the hearts and libidos of men—usually the married ones—wherever she travels.

Dandridge quickly makes the iconic role her own, bringing not only a charismatic bohemian sexuality but a loving humanity to the character that makes anyone in range forgive her indiscretions. The charms and world-weary remorsefulness of Desiree culminate in Night Music’s most memorable ballad, “Send in the Clowns,” in which the actress is surprisingly able to overcome the indelible memory of the original Desiree, Glynis Johns, who won a Tony for her evocative croaked-out interpretation of the song Sondheim wrote especially for her.

Michael Hayden also breaks through the stereotypical bluster of Desiree’s former lover Fredrik Egerman, now a prominent lawyer recently married to the giddy and still sexually repressed 18-year-old Anne (Kaley Anne Voorhees), delivering a finely drawn examination of midlife crisis that’s usually played far more comedic than empathetic.

The women in the cast in general overshadow the men, not necessarily because, unlike Tennessee Williams, Sondheim and the show’s Tony-winning bookwriter Hugh Wheeler have concentrated on the female characters. It’s not that Chase Del Rey as Fredrik’s woebegone son Henrik and Ryan Silverman as Desiree’s terminally misogynistic dragoon lover Count Malcolm aren’t fine in the roles; it’s just that their costars are the clear standouts.

Sarah Uriarte Berry as the Count’s long-suffering wife Charlotte and Ruby Lewis as the Egerman’s sexually adventurous maid Petra both bring down the house with Night Music’s other pair of classic tunes, “Every Day a Little Death” and the eleventh-hour “The Miller’s Son,” respectively, while Jodi Lee as Desiree’s retired courtesan mother finds a new gentler poignancy to her solo “Liaisons.” And as Desiree’s too-wise preteen daughter Fredrika, Makara Gamble makes an auspicious debut in a role often played by precocious young actors working too hard at being cute who don’t quite grasp the I’ve-already-seen-it-all nature of the character.

Under the musical supervision of Darryl Archibald and a phenomenal full onstage orchestra led by musical director Alby Potts, the cast must also be praised for its collective vocal prowess, especially with Georgia Belmont, Jared Bybee, Kimberly Dawson, Oriana Falla, and Arnold Geis winding in and out of the action as the musical’s onstage Greek Chorus.

And oh, did I mention Kate Bergh’s truly magnificent costuming? Her intricate and well researched period-perfect designs could not be a better complement to the production as they shimmer and glow and sweep elegantly across the stage under Sayeg’s creamy lighting; if the theme of this year’s recent annual Met Gala had been “Into the 20th Century,” Bergh’s creations could dress the most fashionable superstars walking the red carpet.

There are no druthers to chronicle in this brilliant and well-timed revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, a production that solidifies Pasadena Playhouse’s position as one of the most notable—and steadfast—regional theatres in America.

THROUGH MAY 28: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Av., Pasadena. 626.356.PLAY or pasadenaplayhouse.org


Photo by Peggy McCartha

Road Theatre Company

Master wordsmith and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Alessandro Camon is more than a just a savvy and beguiling chronicler of the human condition. In his riveting new play Scintilla, now in its world premiere at the Road, he cunningly presents the problems of a group of everyday people to stealthily offer his take on more massive and often seemingly insurmountable global issues.

You know: the big stuff most of us blithely ignore because we can’t see any possible solution as something within our individual control—or perhaps we choose not to look?

Young and upwardly mobile San Franciscan couple Nora and Michael (Krishna Smitha and Kris Frost) travel into the lush and enchanted woods of California’s remote wine country on the pretext of having dinner with his eccentric and reclusive artist mother and to introduce the two women in his life.

More than that, however, his obviously tense and distracted demeanor camouflages his real mission, soon revealed as attempting to convince his pigheaded materfamilias Marianne (Taylor Gilbert) to leave her longtime and beloved rustic tree-sheltered cabin—with major praise here to set designer Stephen Gifford—and relocate her to a place closer where he can stop worrying about her well-being.

There are two reasons why Michael sees this as the only solution, one perhaps more urgent than the other, but both understandable. Not only is there currently a raging wildfire burning nearby rapidly making life in the idyllic region a dangerous prospect but, in the long term, Marianne is starting to face the early stages of Alzheimer’s and he doesn’t want her wandering around in her self-imposed isolation as she begins to fade from life.

As many residents of our state’s mountain communities, Marianne has survived more than one fire threat and isn’t having any. Not only is she perfectly content living alone as she has since the untimely death of her husband in a car accident, there’s a simmering yet quite palpable strain between the mother and son stemming from that very issue.

Into the mix comes Marianne’s neighbor and former boyfriend Stanley (David Gianopoulos), a rugged plaid flannel-clad Jeff Bridges clone who, although he appears to be satisfied with staying friends without benefits, has no real idea why she has unceremoniously dumped him.

Just when the high-strung Michael doesn’t think he could be any more frustrated by this new intruder making his mission to get his mother off to safety tougher, another person shows up, a local homeless tent-dwelling handyman named Roberto (Carlos Lacamara) who has been beaten up by a bunch of assholes who want him to move along from camping out in their utopian community.

If this group thrust together by circumstance isn’t interesting enough—especially spouting the ultra-smart dialogue created by Camon, who has a knack for making us quickly care about the people he creates—once again, Scintilla is a whole lot more than simply seeing if the tension between them can be overcome.

So, what do we have here? A simple, well-constructed, but perhaps predictable little kitchen sink (or is it raw open-beamed hilltop) dramedy where family dynamics are stretched tightly and then released in a heartwarming conclusion? Hardly.

Scintilla is about climate change. It’s about facing our fears. It’s about facing extreme loss when human beings have developed such a gift for putting our troubles on the back burner and hoping the heat dies down without ever having to stick our hands in the proverbial flame.

Above all, it’s about the tenuous survival of our species.

As the fire jumps the highway Marianne and Stanley use as the symbol of their safety, she continues to appear blasé, tossing her spring mix salad, heating her pre-prepared quiche, and pouring endless glasses of wine, each time from a clean glass and eventually popping the cork on the $12,000 1973 vintage bottle she’s been saving forever for a special occasion.

Scintilla is about having to confront loss head-on and dropping the pretense. Stanley sees himself as invulnerable until circumstances prove otherwise and Marianne’s real agenda may or may not include feeling complacent about the future, whether it be suffering long and difficult days as her illness overtakes her feistiness or whether she’d rather simply let the fire do its thing. After all, she quips, she’s always wanted to be cremated.

“It’s funny,” she tells those gathered, “now I spend a lot of time with my memories, knowing they won’t last.” She remembers swimming in a river when she was a kid, long before our collective stupidity poisoned it, and admiring the night sky before it was obscured by smog and the stars still glittered brightly.

“And I realized,” she admits, “I don’t know how to mourn it… how do you mourn a river? How do we mourn starlight? We don’t have prayers for that.” Instead, she says, “We just bamboozle ourselves with bullshit, with drugs, with fucking phones, until we can’t feel a thing.”

Under the precision yet unobtrusive directorial hand of Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, the cast of Camon’s indelibly lingering and hopefully future classic is superb, the quintessential poster children for ensemble performance.

As Marianne, the unstoppable Taylor Gilbert is at her best—and that’s saying a lot considering the body of her work, most of it over the past humina-humina years at the Road where she is founder and longtime co-artistic director.

Here, her slow but steady descent from a headstrong and intractable remnant from the free and loose early days of our generation to someone fighting to stay independent is heartbreaking as we watch her hands begin to shake and her voice become a husky, defeated plea for answers to explain the rapidly crumpling world around us.

Gianopoulos is a perfect sparring partner, a loud and blustery peace-sign flashing survivor who reveals his own haunted memories of an early family disaster and eventually succumbs to his own buried fear of fire despite his dismissal of the idea which could show him to be a sentimental weakling.

Smitha is a rock as Nora, a symbol of compassion and faint hope maybe there's someone around young and caring enough to make a difference, while Lacamara as the proud but lost shell of a man holding onto his dignity, makes a full meal of what could be an easily overlooked role.

Frost might have the play’s most impossible task, helping us relate to someone as contentious and unlikable as Michael, a ridiculous uptight and unswervingly arrogant guy who “doesn’t do messy” but instead only “does algorithms.” His is a continuously frustrating, continuously annoying presence and the actor works theatrical miracles playing someone for whom we would ordinarily have no sympathy.

Still, as brilliant and fiercely committed as this troupe of artists may be, it’s all about the work of Camon, who left me with his eloquent and sometimes disturbing play rattling around in my brain for these several days after I attended and, I suspect, for much longer than that.

“It’s one of those things, like the idea of God,” Marianne realizes. “You can’t hold onto that kind of thought. Our minds can’t go there, even for a moment. How we failed is too much. It’s too terrifying, how we actually failed the whole human experiment.

“We fucked it up, everything we touched, because we must keep going to feed the machine and the machine won’t stop until all the glaciers melt and all the oceans swell and all the cities are burned to the ground or riddled with plague like some fucking ancient prophecy.

“We came into this world, this living planet, with rivers for veins and forests for lungs and mountains for bones and we decided, we actually decided, to become its cancer. All it’s going to take is a spark, a single scintilla, and we’ll all be gone.”

I keep thinking of the qualifications to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, awarded annually for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.

Not sure what it takes to get the Pulitzer committee’s attention, but in a fair world the members should be descending on a scrappy little gem of a theatre in NoHo for a look at Alessandro Camon’s exquisite, lyrical, urgently important new play Scintilla.

THROUGH JUNE 4: Road Theatre Ensemble, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., NoHo. 818.761.8838 or RoadTheatre.org

The Beatles' LOVE at the Mirage, Las Vegas 

For a critic, keeping an open mind and looking at the familiar with a fresh eye for the unexpected is what it’s all about. The Beatles’ LOVE, the long-running Cirque du Soleil extravaganza that has successfully metamorphosed the Mirage Hotel from being all about overmarketed white tigers into becoming the host one of the most groundbreaking musical collaborations of all time, has recently been “updated”—sometimes a dirty word in Las Vegas.

I returned to see LOVE for the umteenth time with some trepidation, since I have what I’d like to think is a personal history with the show. When it first premiered back in 2006, I was given access to the machinations of creating the show. I was in groupie heaven, able to hang around backstage watching rehearsals and getting to know the artists. I spoke with two amazing “Sirs,” the Beatles’ producer George Martin and, on opening night, Paul McCartney himself.

In awe, I observed the down-to-the-wire refining of Philippe Guillotel’s now-famous period-shouting costuming, then interviewed prop goddess Patricia Ruhl and puppet mastermind Michael Curry (also responsible for the magical creatures in the Cirque’s magnificent KA down the street at the MGM Grand and The Lion King on Broadway). Why, I even got to enjoy a memorable “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” experience with an unearthly beautiful server named Levi I met at the opening night party.

The reworked current version of LOVE is in many ways simplified, which is surprisingly not a bad thing. It now seems less about the spectacle and more about the music and what is evokes in us. For some reason, I heard the gossamer lyrics of John and Paul as clearly this time as if they were onstage reciting their game-changing urban poetry and, oddly, the signature wonders of the Cirque took a respectful backseat for me to what these guys had to say about the world from the perspective of a half-century past. Prophetic, so much of it—and sadly, so little has been heeded or has changed about our fucked-up species since they first introduced their inspirational classic tunes.

Granted, I have been a Beatles fan since my friend brought the White Album over to my house in the fall of 1968 after standing in line overnight waiting for it to be released, an event that stretched from one “enhanced” morning into the next and made me fall deeply in thrall with the Fab Four and their ever-evolving music for the first time as the fireplace in my living room melted onto the floor.

Now, all these years later, watching the wonders of LOVE for the first time, it was like dropping acid again. Close. Really close. For me, however, what it made me recall even stronger was that opening night in the summer of 2006 when it all unfolded before me for the first time. Truly, though 17 years ago, I saw it all so vividly it felt like it had all happened about 18 months ago.

During that week dragging myself through the sweltering Vegas summer, my first glimpse into what would become a legendary production took place in the bowels of the Mirage where Siegfried and Roy once housed their lions and tigers before and after performances. It was complete with ominous scratch marks remaining along the hallway and remnants of the bolts that once fastened their cages in place still visible on the walls, but now acrobats soared to the high ceiling of the room on long vertical ropes while rehearsing for the much-anticipated opening of Cirque’s fifth permanent Vegas attraction.

Unlike those overly trained and obviously unhappy white-striped beasts of yore, helpless to say whether they wanted to be there or not all those years, these newly arrived airborne human artisans had been rehearsing for months—and not just to learn how to soar like Lucy in the Sky. In keeping with the “Here Comes the Sun” number, the performers honored a song written when the Beatles were into their metaphysical-transcendental stage by fiercely researching and diligently studying a mix of yoga techniques and Eastern Indian dance. Whether or not they tried a couple of tabs of Clear Light to understand the mood and atmosphere of that colorful era lost in time, they didn’t say.

Let’s just say commitment among the huge cast, as well as the multitude of backstage artists and technicians pushing the LOVE payroll to about 200, was a given—and obviously still is 17 years later. Bowing at every turn to the Beatles’ groundbreaking sound, the Cirque and MGM International joined forces with Apple Music to stage this still magical mystery tour, miraculously engineering new life into some of the 20th century’s most enduring music—and still keeping it alive and well all these years later.

In the process, they shaped a musical revolution of sorts by bringing together the brilliance of the most imaginative and successful composers of the last century with the most innovative troupe of performance artists working anywhere today, a formula that subsequently did them well with Viva Elvis, which opened the Aria there in 2010, and Michael Jackson ONE, currently playing still at Mandalay Bay. It’s a given that the Cirque reinvented this bizarre town over the past quarter-century since Mystere took the infamous desert oasis by storm in 1993. Wayne Newton has never been the same.

The original opening festivities were overshadowed by the presence of Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, as well as Sir Paul, who answered all questions rather dourly and barely venturing past one syllable, and his only other remaining bandmate, the newly elevated Sir Ringo Starr. Still, the most incredible part of covering the event was meeting and talking to the late-great George Martin, the then-octogenarian producer of all the Beatles’ albums and co-musical director of LOVE with his son Giles.

Working for two years on this project, Sir George admitted that night it was thrilling even for him. Not content with creating a retrospective or tribute show, the Martins insisted instead on bringing to each of the 2,013 audience members the personal experience of being in a small recording studio listening to the music for the first time.

In their sound studio high above the stage, an exact replica of Abbey Road Studios (“So much so we felt like laboratory hamsters whenever we moved something,” he admitted), the Martins practiced their signature sorcery. “Our mission was to try and achieve the same intimacy we get when listening to the master tapes at the studio,” he proudly explained. “The songs sound so alive. A lot of people listen to the Beatles in a conventional way—radio, MP3 player or car, for example—but never in such a space as this.”

Creating a kind of directional panoramic mode in the theatre-in-the-round by embedding two speakers in the back of every seat, the sounds of LOVE engulf and envelope the audience, achieving, as Sir George believed, “a real sense of drama with the music, [making] the audience feel as though they are actually in the room with the band.”

This is made more unique since the master tapes utilized were not designed for a record, not mined from the old classic albums or concert performances, but cut during the boys’ stints in the studio making small promotional films. Often featuring improvised quips as they goofed off and joked casually with one another, the final mix offers, as Sir George reasoned to me with infectious, childlike enthusiasm, “such an immediate sound… not ‘muffly’ like with so many shows in rooms this size.”

And today even more than before, unlike any Cirque du Soleil production before it, LOVE is a spirited and colorful homage of the era in which The Beatles soared—and the designers and creators did everything in their power (and they have a lot of resources from which to draw) to revive that global phenomenon known in my lost youth as Beatlemania. Beginning with real live Nowhere Men shuffling alone onto the stage to reluctantly visit a modest “Nowhere Land,” four scrim-obscured sides of the 360-degree experience soon lift grandly into a brave new world.

Acrobats scale ropes leading from a deep smoking pit around the stage to the riggings high above, twirling around the dismal scene of WWII-torn Liverpool, the exact time when John Lennon was born during the last Blitz. As brick walls burst and four small mop-topped children cower in their beds, the chillingly omniscient voices of the Beatles fill the enormous space to harmonize their glorious a cappella classic tune “Because.” Many of the Beatles’ characters are present onstage, including Eleonor Rigby, Father McKenzie, Sgt. Pepper, Lady Madonna, Mr. Kite, and the Walrus, as the chronology of the Beatles’ music journeys from the early eager goofy enthusiasm, through the drug-enhanced and meditation eras, and on to a spectacular finale of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The 90-minute ride is like nothing anyone has ever seen before, thanks to the creators’ ability to make it all alternately imposing yet surprisingly intimate. Populated not only with typical Cirque aerialists and gymnasts but with street performers, ballet artists, hip-hoppers, tap and break dancers, some originally pulled right off the curb who’d never been onstage show before, there could not be a greater or more devoted homage to the colossal talents of the Beatles than LOVE.

Theatre and set designer Jean Rabesse was given a totally blank blueprint schematic of the former Siegfried and Roy stage and told to do whatever he wanted—a designer’s dream. Like the Martins, Rabesse wanted to go, he told me in 2006, inside the "universe of the 1960s" beginning in the lobby itself, and thought the idea of creating a black box recording studio feeling “was a natural” to put the audience in the studio with the band. A lot of what he created was conjured in computerized 3-D: “Other shows work with models and drawings,” he explained, “but this one had to be seen as a POV from every seat and all angles.” This result, he suggested, is that one needs to come back “four to 10 times to see everything,” bringing a hint of the original three-ring roots of the circus to mind—again, thankfully, without imprisoning and domesticating wild animals.

Augmenting the inspiration of LOVE’s conceptual creator Guy Laliberte, who first conjured the idea for the production while hanging with his bud, the late-great Saint George (Harrison) himself, are incredible video projections fabricated by Francis Laporte, who admitted to me behind the scenes in his own studio that a scant two years ago he never would have had the tools to achieve the heights of visual wonder he did with LOVE. Utilizing mostly unearthed promotional films featuring the Beatles at their most relaxed, his aim was to be as timeless as possible. This is apparent in a spectacular mounting of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as projected letters of the alphabet float down, projected across screens from above. “We wanted the feeling of words falling,” explained Laporte, “like a dream falling apart.”

Asked about the inclusion of four children depicted without faces wearing plastic Beatles mob-headed helmets reminiscent of Devo, director-writer Dominic Champagne’s ability to conjure a personal connection with the bandmembers becomes apparent. “Remember, John Lennon was the most famous man on the planet after Jesus Christ back then,” he explained just before opening night.

The Beatles were back then as puzzled by their own rampant fame as anyone else, making them feel almost invisible within the claustrophobic confines of their own celebrity. This emphasis is also visible in the presence of one lost Chaplin-like Nowhere Man, whose presence is meant to reflect the loss of freedom and personal space Lennon was experiencing when he referred to himself as a ‘nowhere man.’ “You know, for any of us,” said Champagne with a grin, “all we need is love.”

The scariest thing for me sitting among the first people to see LOVE was the audience dotted with ancient gray and white heads reminiscent of a group of subscribers gathered for opening night of some old musical warhorse at La Mirada Civic. My immediate thought, as the walls themselves came alive with the sound of Beatles’ music cranked to full volume, was that the usual Vegas audiences might not appreciate the decibel level.

And not much has changed. Footlong margaritas still in hand and wearing what Rita Rudner once quipped to me where clothes that make her want to go up to them and say, “Excuse me, but what are you thinking?,” the minute the sounds of John, Paul, Ringo and John’s vocals filled the huge auditorium, all those gray and white heads came alive, bopping and weaving like psychedelicized flower children just as we did 50 years ago. Those ancient heads, you see, were my contemporaries, something that made me want to go back to my suite, melt into the pillowtop mattress, and pull the covers over my own rapidly-graying head.

But after partying the night away at that original opening bash, toe-to-toe with the performers and artisans of LOVE break dancing ‘til nearly dawn, I realized back then what a remarkable impact my generation has made on the world in general and the future of music in particular.

As my students used to continually quiz me about my days touring in Hair, booking the Troubadour in its artistic heyday, or working for Jim Morrison and The Doors, their adoration for my era is obvious, not like when we Boomers were kids, listening with moderate curiosity as our parents waxed nostalgic about swinging to Tommy Dorsey or listening to Rosemary Clooney warbling about the cost of doggies in the window.

There was nothing wrong with those simpler days that also bravely paved the way for my generation's own historic musical emergence, but it was nothing like what we accomplished in the late 60s and early 70s before disco strip-mined the experience, bringing with us sounds that laid the groundwork for the unstoppable musical freedom of today.

For all those yung'uns who worship our Boomer-years youth, you should; there was nothing like it for those of us who somehow managed to survive it. And in the last 17 years, there’s still nowhere to absorb that experience better than by heading to the Mirage to let your mind soar and your body groove to the wonder of the Beatles as though discovering them for the first time, reverently recreated and celebrated in LOVE, the best Cirque du Soleil production in their amazing 38-year career revolutionizing entertainment as we once knew it.

PLAYS INDEFINITELY: Mirage Hotel & Casino, 3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas. 702.761.7111 or www.cirquedusoleil.com


See? I'm an Angel!