Hanging By A Thread – Sin City’s Huge Entertainment Dilemma


Fuerza Bruta’s shocking failure suggests a troubling future for large-scale productions….

Several years ago I penned a two-parter for Vegas Chatter entitled “Four Walls and a Dream”. In it I explored the difficulties involved in launching a new show in today’s corporation-run Vegas. Gone are the days when casinos supported their own entertainment. It’s up to productions themselves to “pay the rent” via an arrangement known as four-walling. And that quite simply is why most new shows are gone before you’ve ever even heard of them.

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That article was inspired by Jeff Civillico, a dynamic young entertainer whose star was already on the rise. His “Comedy In Action” afternoon show at Linq Hotel (then known somewhat absurdly as The Quad) was working hard to make a name for itself. Yet the resort where he rented showroom space had little interest in helping “Comedy In Action” to succeed.

Civillico was on the hook not only for the room and production costs, but also for supplying the advertising materials to display around the property. Yet Jeff had little control over where they’d be displayed….if at all. I’m not sure if he ever worked out his issues with parent company Caesars Entertainment, but Comedy in Action still performs once a week at Paris Hotel Casino.

I learned a lot about the current state of Vegas entertainment while researching that piece. There was plenty of response from performers, producers, directors and public relations people when it ran, too. But after the shocking announcement that Fuerza Bruta would be shuttering only four weeks into a six-month stint, I realized two valuable facts:

  1.  There is no magic formula to ensure that a show will be a hit.
  2.  The current state of Vegas entertainment is more volatile than ever before.

If you haven’t heard of Fuerza Bruta, then congratulations. I’ll pretend to make a check-mark in the air and we can continue on down the list. But first, allow me to say that less than one week ago in my rave review for Fuerza Bruta for BestOfVegas.com, I called it a “Sin City game changer”. I also inaccurately claimed that it was “poised to redefine entertainment on the Strip”. Oh, my… (click HERE to read the original review).

 

 

Just after I’d sent the piece off to the editor, I received an email from Fuerza Bruta’s public relations firm regarding the Vegas run.

FUERZA BRUTA will perform its final show at Excalibur Hotel & Casino on Sunday, April 7, 2019. The acclaimed production, which has been seen by more than six million spectators in more than 34 countries and 58 cities since its launch in 2003, will continue to impress audiences from around the world as it prepares to make the move from Las Vegas to MGM Cotai in Macau in June 2019.
Tickets for the remaining Las Vegas performances of FUERZA BRUTA are now on sale and available at any MGM Resorts International box office, online at Excalibur.com or by calling (702) 597-7600. Refunds for tickets purchased for shows at Excalibur after April 7 will be available at the point of purchase.

It took awhile for the shock of this announcement to subside. I could have been embarrassed that I’d been so far off in my predictions. Instead I was angry that the so-called “City of Entertainment” had chewed up and spit out yet another piece of great entertainment.

 

 

All but one of my friends who had seen the show were absolutely dazzled by the balls-to-the-walls audacity of it. During three separate viewings, I’d stood alongside (and chatted afterwards with) cast members from shows like Chippendales, Le Reve, Zumanity and Donny & Marie. They’d come as I had to see if the enthusiastic pre-opening buzz was deserved. And every one of them was delirious, if not downright envious, of the incredible visuals and creative sequences that Fuerza Bruta was able to pull off inside a tent erected on a parking lot.

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That positive word-of-mouth alone should have been enough to bolster tickets sales. If performers from some of the top shows in Vegas loved it, then it was a must-see, right? Not so fast. Depending on who you ask, it turns out that paid tickets for the show were averaging 50-80 sales per performance with the rest comped (freebies). But if all of those people love it, then they’ll recommend it to friends and attendance will build, right? Well, that would take time….which the powers that be weren’t about to grant.

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Fuerza Bruta was located just outside of Excalibur, which is owned by MGM Resorts. MGM runs nearly half of the major resorts on the Strip. So why weren’t they supplying the capital to help fund operations and allow for attendance of this remarkable show to grow? Four-walling, of course! If Fuerza Bruta failed, all Excalibur would have to do is pull down the advertisements and sweep away any remaining evidence of where the tent had been.

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Realizing that readers and friends who’d planned on seeing the show would never get that opportunity to do so made me angry. I took to social media to vent my frustrations. “What the Hell is wrong with Vegas? Nothing worthwhile stands a chance anymore!”

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Well, thank goodness for the reach of Facebook and Twitter, because my steam-valve post brought out lots of sensible responses from performers in and around the Strip. Mike Hammer of Mike Hammer Comedy Magic at Four Queens was the first to chime in:

You can blame it on this city all you want but they didn’t understand the fundamentals of running a show in this town. It comes down to poor marketing strategy. First of all the show has a name that is not memorable. I live here and can’t even pronounce the name. No way most people from the Midwest are even going to know what the show is. Also, it’s pretty hard to sell a show when you can’t even describe it. Everyone I know that has seen it, including has never described it in one sentence. They didn’t even leave enough time to build up a buzz.

Bad timing of when they opened too. Slower time of the year with March madness and spring break. Again, this a producers decision. They weren’t even selling 50 tickets so how can you blame it on this city?

Again, people that don’t get the VEGAS market. If they didn’t plan enough money to survive six months of marketing, they just were not ready. I wish the best of luck elsewhere where they know what they’re doing. I love VEGAS and it’s been a home to me for 16 years. I’ve seen shows come and go and most of the time it’s the producers or management fault.

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Enoch Augustus Scott, host of long-running hit Zombie Burlesque at Planet Hollywood’s V Theater also took exception to my finger-pointing at Vegas:

There are a million possible reasons besides fat Americans to account for this. Injury. Bad accounting. Or it could be the standing up. People stand and walk around Las Vegas all day along. Sometimes the only chance they get to sit is dinner or a show. Also the Las Vegas show demo skews older. Also people from all over the world come to Vegas. Cirque has been able to grow as big as they are by catering to and attracting an international market base. So you really can’t blame fat Americans on a show not running. Clearly the producers did not understand the landscape or have enough capital to go the 6 months. Happens all the time. Producers come here with a hope and dream and without a business plan or the necessary investment to run a show long enough for it to become a success. It is poor craftsman who blames his tools and even poorer performer who blames his audience. Literally.

While I agree on much of what Enoch says, he also had added “It was always meant to be a limited run. Calm down everybody.” Correct, but that limited run was for six months with the hope of an extension. Four weeks was clearly a failure with deeper implications.

 

See, that’s the problem with having so many choices in one city. Without brand recognition, a famous headliner or a simple-to-explain concept, your middle-American Vegas visitors just won’t make the time for it. Hence we’re inundated with magic shows, impersonators, topless revues and lots of “Circus Day Solay”.

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It’s interesting to note that Fuerza Bruta played in New York City from 2007 through 2016. That’s over 3,000 performances! But we’re talking about an entirely different demographic over there. Visitors to NYC book their tickets to Broadway hits months…and sometimes a year or more…in advance. They’re also a more sophisticated crowd that makes Broadway entertainment part of an elegant evening that includes fine dining while wearing tasteful and carefully-selected outfits.

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But in Las Vegas we’ve got 1) no backing from the host hotels, 2) no opportunity to build brand awareness….and 3) a group of visitors not exactly looking for high art to go along with their yard-long daiquiris.

I went poking around other social media outlets to see how people were reacting to the news of Fuerza Bruta’s sudden shuttering. Always-reliable VitalVegas.com had quickly published an article announcing the closure, and it was a comment from reader ExVegasLocal that caught my eye:

I was “this close” to buying tickets to see Fuerza Bruta for an upcoming trip. It looked like a really cool show, but I was on the fence because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be jostled in a crowd from one side of the room to the other for an hour. In the end, I decided not to bite.

No matter what Vegas thinks about itself, it’s not really that forward thinking/avant garde. Neither are its visitors. Hence the constant replication of one thing that works until it’s completely overdone. Another Cirque show/night club with one syllable name/shopping arcade in front of a hotel/pool party/CVS pharmacy anyone? Now that’s more like it.

Vin A., one of The Bronx Wanderers, had a humorous reaction to my post…one that was also deeply insightful:

Well THAT was obnoxiously fast 😢 i didn’t even get to see the freaking thing! Wtf? Need a low low overhead to survive out here. Why all the one man shows live on forever and a few small cast things barely squeak by. It’s tough as hell out here. You play here for the prestige, and you tour for the money that carries you through your losses out here. That’s the future.

Raja Rahman of the musical magic duo Jarrett and Raja added his own thoughts to the situation:

It’s never about the quality of the show. It’s the $$$ behind it. Ugh. The cycle continues. After our experience, I’m convinced this business model is crap. Any business needs time to ramp up.

“Our experience” no doubt refers to the troubles Jarrett and Raja encountered at various showrooms throughout the city. They’ve had to deal with four-wall scenarios and abrupt closures at downtown’s Plaza Hotel, Hooters Casino and Stratosphere. Even though these gentlemen are residents of Las Vegas, they often find it sensible and more lucrative just to take their talents on the road.

Actually, it’s a pretty common thing for Vegas shows to go on tours. And often they never return. A few years ago I shadowed a production as it searched for a suitable venue on the Strip. After months of meetings and hassles, they decided on a major casino with a troubled showroom history. Sadly, their production would just be another casualty in a long list at the historic south-Strip hotel.

An opening date was chosen, tickets were sold, sets were constructed and advertisements went up throughout the casino and outside. But after being frustrated by resistance and lack of support from the hotel’s regime, the producers abruptly decided to throw up their hands, walk out the door and take the show on the road without doing a Vegas residency.

It makes no sense. It’s like they don’t want you here. Why should I put up money and then fight with the people who I’m paying rent to? After all that, if I’m lucky I’ll sell two hundred tickets a night in Las Vegas. We could take this show to other places where entertainment like this isn’t available and sell out two THOUSAND seats a night. And those places roll out the red carpet for us.

And that’s exactly what he did. A show designed for the Vegas Strip had to leave the city in order to survive. And the showroom they walked away from still remains empty two years later.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but greed always puts short-term profit ahead of long-term goals. Let’s use BAZ as an example. That innovative musical was brought to Mandalay Bay from Los Angeles by none other than Cirque du Soleil. The launch occurred during an awkward time frame in which ownership and business models at Cirque were being radically altered. Cirque abandoned BAZ in no time and without their support it closed after only six weeks.

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      BAZ was the perfect blend of sass, class and contemporary pop culture…

That’s when the Sands Corporation stepped in. Recognizing the many benefits of having a fantastic and unusual show on their property, they forked over the money to retro-fit the Palazzo Theater and supported BAZ’s run for two years. BAZ was never going to be a huge hit, but it was a prestigious project that brought a great deal of class and pride to the Venetian/Palazzo family.

So on one side we’ve got performers stating from personal experience that the four-wall business model doesn’t work. And on the other we’ve got these huge corporations that just don’t care. Working within the confines of the current system, what can be done to help a show succeed?

Well, if there was an answer to that, then at least a few of the dozens of shows that died in 2017 and 2018 might still be around. And that theoretical answer still wouldn’t apply to an existing property like Fuerza Bruta. So should it have been the responsibility of the PR firm to suggest “Hey, your show isn’t going to work here without a bit of overhaul”? Unlikely….they’re a third-party agency being hired by the show to spread awareness and buzz….nothing more. And who tells their boss on the first day that people might not even want their product?

Besides, public relations firms work mostly within the industry, reaching out to people like yours truly and much larger outlets such as TV networks, magazines and newspapers. They can tailor an existing ad campaign to make it Vegas-centric, but a risky top-to-bottom re-do for one stop of a tour? Not gonna happen…and we’ve already decided that there’s no magic formula for success, so why even try to change what’s worked everywhere else on the planet?

Should the PR firm have at least suggested a name revision for the show? Again, that would have understandably been met with resistance from a product that’s already a worldwide brand. And yet, a temporary re-naming to “Fuerza Bruta – Brute Force” might have eliminated some confusion and put a few more arses in those non-existent seats. Even the wise folks at Wynn eventually decided after several years to officially change the name of  Le Reve to “Le Reve – The Dream”. Because, you know, French is hard!

So just how much is in a name? Maybe the folks at the Strat should be asking that question right about now. No doubt they are sweating, because their delayed-delayed-delayed tent show Celestia, which was supposed to open on January 30th, is suddenly looking at an even more troubled future.

Celestia, now set for a May 1st debut (even though tickets are still not up for sale), may have an edge over Fuerza Bruta simply because it’s a show created specifically for Vegas. But we can justifiably counteract that advantage with the simple fact that it’s way at the troubled north end of the Strip and not the heavily-traveled Excalibur/MGM Grand/Tropicana/New York NY intersection where F.B. failed.

Celestia can also boast having some Cirque du Soleil DNA in its genes….and a few years ago that might have mattered. But now it’s time to recognize something really scary: Cirque du Soleil is facing genuine trouble here in Las Vegas. I’ve been told by people behind the scenes that MGM Resorts is quietly preparing to shut down all of their Cirque shows by the end of 2020.

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                             It’s my blog, I’ll be dramatic if I want to be…

While that might sound like absurd conjecture, there is plenty of evidence to back this rumor up. For one, huge productions like KA, ZUMANITY and Beatles LOVE are now advertising on Groupon. Yes, Groupon…the place where you go to buy discount Botox treatments and personalized make-up bags.

 

 

In my Vegas Chatter days, Groupon was a clear indicator that a Vegas attraction was struggling badly and would soon be gone. If you don’t believe me try to visit Eli Roth’s GORETORIUM. That’s not always the case anymore, but with must-see shows like LOVE, it’s an embarrassing way to put butts in seats.

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Hundreds of empty seats during a Friday performance of Cirque’s “Beatles LOVE” 

I recently attended a Friday-night performance of LOVE and was shocked that the massive auditorium was perhaps 40 percent filled. Hundreds upon hundreds of empty seats. And that’s apparently been the case for most of the Cirque shows for awhile now.

Vital Vegas stated in May of last year that Cirque’s 2017 capacity had been running at around 50 percent. With the removal of free parking to Nevada residents and a continued drop in tourism, that number would look even bleaker in the first quarter of 2019.

MGM Resorts numbers bear out rumors Cirque shows running at 50-60% capacity in Vegas: 3.6 million Cirque tickets sold in 2017, 9,890/week avg. per show. At 10 shows per week, that’s 989 sold with avg. capacity of 1,700.

Vital Vegas was also one of the first to report that Cirque Vegas was undergoing huge layoffs behind the scenes as part of a massive cost-cutting measure:

As they say in show business, “Holy crap!” Cirque du Soleil has reportedly informed all their Las Vegas shows (excluding “Mystere”) all department heads (lighting, sound, wardrobe, etc.) will be let go Apr. 17.

7:19 PM – 23 Mar 2019

He followed that up with an even more troubling tweet:

Hearing at least one well-known Cirque variety act was spotted auditioning at another (non-Cirque) show in town, presumably due to safety concerns related to Cirque layoffs.

12:48 PM – 31 Mar 2019

So, department heads have been axed, individual shows are being consolidated under one umbrella and performers are supposedly jumping ship to save their own skins. Does that sound like Cirque du Soleil will be around much longer to you?

In November I visited the Vegas Cirque du Soleil headquarters for a profile on Kim Scott, their Senior Manager of Sourcing and Partnerships. In her twelve years with the company, Scott had spearheaded shows like KA, Beatles LOVE and Criss Angel Believe.

During the interview, Kim had proudly spoken about being “responsible for maintaining our position in the industry as a leader in live entertainment safety standards, and position(ing) Cirque du Soleil as an employer of choice.” Yet one week after the article was published, Ms. Scott notified me that she was leaving Cirque to start her own consulting firm. I was astonished…and a little concerned.

Scott had also mentioned at the time that Cirque was busy creating a new show for Luxor in the theater vacated by Criss Angel’s Mindfreak. Raise your hand if you’ve heard anything about that one….I certainly haven’t.

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          Wanna go gaga over Gaga? It’ll set you back about a grand….

If a major brand like Cirque is struggling, new shows can’t afford to open and dozens of existing productions have disappeared, what will the future of Las Vegas entertainment look like? I have three answers: pricey headliner residencies, sports teams and celebrity DJ’s.

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       This….person…was just hired by Palms Resort to the tune of $60 million…

I don’t think anyone’s unaware of the Golden Knights or the new Raiders stadium. And who isn’t buzzing about Lady Gaga‘s two new shows at Park MGM Theater? Katy Perry, Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, Aerosmith and more are settling in for extended gigs. Throw in Marshmello/Calvin Harris and their ilk for the club kids and that’ll probably cover nearly every major kind of entertainment in the city.

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           1.8 billion dollars is the projected cost of the new Raiders stadium…

Oh, those little one-man shows will probably survive. And the strippers most likely will never run out of poles to swing from. But for productions shows, you’ll just have to head Downtown to the Smith Center. That venue for the performing arts will continue to host nationwide touring productions for short-term runs. Las Vegas will just be another stop on the schedule…no longer unique.

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               “Closed. Refunds will be available at the point of purchase.”

Clips and photos by Sam Novak. Except for a few from…wherever….

 

 

 

 

 

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IMAGINARIUM Is Pure, Epic Magic


David Goldrake’s grandiose production at Tropicana will touch your senses and soul…

Something mysterious is going on at the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. The entertainment gods have seen fit to grace that location with three epic magic shows. One performer is legendary, the second is flashy, and the newest is a challenger of major proportions. His name is David Goldrake, and his new show David Goldrake: IMAGINARIUM at Tropicana is an entertainment gold mine.

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Goldrake (center) with fellow magicians Jarrett and Raja at the media premiere…            

Following on the heels of Jan Rouven‘s shocking abrupt closure and the short-lived Band of Magicians, one might question the wisdom of opening yet another illusion-based production inside the troubled, beautiful Tropicana Showroom. But the third time is clearly a charm, as David Goldrake’s gorgeous presentation is worthy of the space. It’s also deserving of the opportunity to take on David Copperfield and the far-inferior Criss Angel.

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Say what you will about the relevance of magic shows in 2017 Las Vegas, but IMAGINARIUM is much more than hokey top hats and sexy assistants. With an ethereal introduction of smokey morphing shapes and lush music, IMAGINARIUM sets up a surrealistic mood that the Luxemborg-born Goldrake maintains throughout.

After an opening illusion, Goldrake comes out to introduce himself and explain IMAGINARIUM, the circus sideshow that he visited as a child for a fifty-cent admission price. The experience of growing up as a fascinated young man in Europe permeates the production, enhanced by the host’s unique accent and magnetic presence.

David Goldrake, while known in several countries as an “International Man of Mystery”, has yet to make a mark on U.S. pop culture. When you’re a somewhat unknown quantity in Las Vegas, it helps to have charisma and good looks…both of which Goldrake has in abundance.

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David moves with the grace and elegance of a dancer, yet his massive muscular frame fills the grand Tropicana stage. So do the lush sets and immersive backdrops that pull you into each illusion. Expensive-looking video content from Drop The Spoon (Le Reve/Franco Dragone), steampunk-style design by EDT and costumes from Erin “Topaz” Lareau rival anything that the Cirque-financed Criss Angel has presented at Luxor.

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All of those bells and whistles don’t mean anything if the star performer can’t capture your imagination. IMAGINARIUM does so in spades. Large-scale stunts like a human-sized hourglass disappearance and passing through a sheet of solid metal will have you scratching your head.

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A particularly memorable moment comes when Goldrake collects rings from the hands of three volunteers. Placing them on a spindle while in constant view of the audience, he agitates the rings until they’re suddenly linked together into a small chain. And before you can say “audience plants”, one participant of that illusion was my companion for the evening…there was no collusion.

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David’s assistants, two women and two men, are skilled performers in their own right. The gorgeous dancers, contortionists, acrobats and aerialists get their own well-deserved sequence, an old-tyme European-styled sideshow sequence highlighting individual talents that come together for a rousing mini-finale.

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My favorite set piece, by far, is a salute to Houdini’s underwater straitjacket escape. A shirtless (and ab-tastic) Goldrake is chained and suspended upside-down in a glass chamber filled filled with water before your eyes. Never once is the clear tank out of sight…the gasping, bubbles and struggles are real. So were the accelerated beats of my heart.

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David Goldrake IMAGINARIUM

It’s always exciting when a new name bursts on the Vegas scene and raises the bar for a everyone…audiences and performers alike. We saw it happen when Spiegelworld (Absinthe and Cosmo’s Vegas Nocture) challenged Cirque du Soleil, Matt Goss shook up the lounge scene and BAZ: A Musical Mashup redefined musical theater. We’re seeing it once more with David Goldrake: IMAGINARIUM.

There’s a hot new illusionist in town and he’s not to be missed. If you see only one large-scale magic show on your trip to Sin City, make it David Goldrake: IMAGINARIUM. You will be thrilled, mystified…and your heart will soar skyward.

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David Goldrake: IMAGINARIUM performs Tuesday through Sunday at 7pm. Suitable for all ages. Tickets start at $39.90 plus taxes/fees and can be ordered here. Groupon is currently offering discount seats starting at $28 with no additional fees by clicking here.

Photos: Sammasseur, IMAGINARIUM via Facebook