- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

LAS VEGAS — In Las Vegas, “LOVE” is all you need.

At least, that’s what Cirque du Soleil hopes as their $150-million show featuring the music of the Beatles settles in at the Mirage. It might be more accurate to say Cirque is all you need. After all, “LOVE,” which opened June 30, brings to five the number of permanent Cirque shows in Sin City.

How a small circus from French Canada took over Las Vegas is anybody’s guess. But “LOVE” may be the troupe’s most savvy move yet. In tapping into a cultural phenomenon still going strong after more than four decades, Cirque finally has a show with heart — and a guaranteed audience.

The greatest rock band ever broke up in 1970. John Lennon was shot in 1980; George Harrison died in 2001. But Beatlemania never completely disappeared.

Mr. Lennon’s drawings tour the world; they just stopped in Alexandria. A film, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” opens this fall. The Washington Ballet premiered “The Bach/Beatles Project” in May. Ringo Starr played Vegas’ Mandalay Bay the night after “LOVE” opened. And Paul McCartney’s recent 64th birthday — musically prefigured long ago by his “When I’m 64” and shadowed by his recent marital split — was treated as front page news.

With reporters stepping over each other on the red carpet before the “LOVE” premiere and women screaming a few yards away, it almost felt like 1964.

“It’s uncanny,” Mr. McCartney replied to this reporter’s question about the new young fans the band enjoys every generation.

Dominic Champagne, “LOVE’s” director, argues songs like “Hey Jude” and “Strawberry Fields” have the same staying power as Homer’s “Odyssey.”

“LOVE” brings the Beatles’ songs to life. An international cast of 60 acrobats, actors, and dancers create a series of tableaux in a loose narrative: from the Blitz to the American Vietnam War protests, with abstract productions in between. This isn’t a tribute to the Beatles. But then, there are already plenty of those.

The 2,031-seat theater specially designed for the show has 100-foot-wide projection screens and a loudspeaker in every seat. Films enjoy 5.1-channel surround sound; the LOVE Theater has 25.5. The effect is astounding.

Be advised: The music isn’t quite the same as that released in the 1960s.

Legendary Beatles producer George Martin and his son Giles created the soundtrack from the original recordings. Except for one new string arrangement — to appease Olivia Harrison, who thought a demo version of her late husband’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was too “small” — it’s all Beatles, 130 songs’ worth. But it’s mixed in new ways, so you hear the horns of “Penny Lane” in “Strawberry Fields” and the drums of “Mean Mr. Mustard” in “Octopus’s Garden.”

“We can make the music better than it ever was,” Sir George says of today’s technological advances.

Most in attendance seemed to agree.

Michael Richards (“Seinfeld’s” Kramer) was asked what he thought of the show. He may have been speaking for many when he replied, “I didn’t think, I just felt it. It was very moving.”

Sir Paul seemed delighted as well. His mood was so buoyant, he kissed Yoko Ono on stage after the premiere.

The Beatles’ invasion may be one of the last times a common cultural possession was shared across age, class, and race lines. What is it about these four working-class lads from Liverpool that made them into a phenomenon with near-universal appeal, the likes of which we are unlikely to see again anytime soon?

Billy Squier, who plays with Ringo Starr’s band, believes it’s a convergence of elements. “They came at a period of time of so much change,” he says. “They were incredibly creative, insightful, sincere.”

The Doors’ John Densmore agrees. “It was a real renaissance, in the arts, film, music everything,” he says of the ‘60s.

Musician-actor and satellite radio host (“Little Steven’s Underground Garage”) Steve Van Zandt remarks, “You had four very talented guys in the same band. It would be four different bands these days.”

But for George Martin, there is a simple answer: “Their songs really are great. … They must be the best songwriters of the last century.”

Theirs was also a special chemistry that has been rarely, if ever, repeated. “Ringo and Paul and George and John individually were good,” he says. “But when they combined together, they became something that was unreal.”

Music the real star of show

As Cirque du Soleil’s “LOVE” starts with chatter from the band announcing “This is a live show. 1, 2, 3, 4,” you feel that the boys from Liverpool are really in the room.

An a cappella “Because” quickly reminds us how beautiful the Beatles’ music can be. Then “Get Back,” with four monster screens each showing a band member from that final rooftop concert, brings the excitement to a crescendo. It was nearly impossible to hold back tears at the emotional impact of a decade of the most meaningful music pop has produced.

The power of the Beatles’ music has never been in doubt; that both helps and hurts the Cirque show. The group’s creativity provides a wealth of material. But how can a group of acrobats and rollerbladers, however talented, compete with music this iconic?

They can’t, although they do an admirable job trying.

Canadian acrobat Evelyne Lamontagne is a soaring “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Natasha Jean-Bart, a Canadian hip-hop dancer, gives us a joyful new image of “Lady Madonna” in an exhilarating gumboot sequence with her children represented by rubber boot puppets.

And the four girls in white filmy dresses in “Something” moved through the air as if George Harrison wrote the song for them.

Other pieces aren’t so successful. “Blackbird” almost ignores the music entirely. It turns Mr. McCartney’s lyrical ballad into farce, with a comedic figure speaking the lyrics as he encourages some man-birds to fly. Many Beatles fans will find this a travesty.

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