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Although it just celebrated its fifth anniversary, Cirque du Soleil's Love wears its years lightly. In this respect (among many others) it mirrors the evergreen Beatles songbook that is both Love's inspiration and spine. It's difficult to believe that music and lyrics of such freshness and audacity are almost old enough to qualify for AARP membership.

Unlike some Cirque spectacles, Love really needs to be seen twice. That may sound like a catchy promo phrase but it's true. The proliferation of onstage action and the problematic sightlines of the arena at The Mirage make it impossible to take in all of Love in a single sitting. Those who caught it early in its run can be assured that numbers which critics faulted, like "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," have been restaged.

Staged in the round, with a deep elevator bay in the middle, Love - like Ka - bothers very little with the usual Cirque pre-show persiflage but gets right down to business. Once it does, it is quickly evident not only how Love got it right but how the recent attempt to repeat the formula with Viva Elvis went so very wrong.

No pop songbook is so uniquely well suited to Cirque-ian flights of fancy than that of The Beatles, particularly the later albums with their surrealistic imagery and free-associative lyrics. Liberated from conventional narrative, Cirque's imagination is free to soar, combining the exuberant energy of the early Beatles albums with the hallucinogenic content of their later, pharmaceutically assisted ones. When chained to the far more literal meanings of Elvis Presley's songs, the troupe is in more of a rock jailhouse than in "Jailhouse Rock." (This does not bode well for a forthcoming attempt to visualize the similarly clear-cut meanings of Michael Jackson.)

The collaborative presence of The Beatles' producer, Sir George Martin, cannot be underestimated. Not only does Martin know the songs backwards and forwards (and, in the case of The Beatles' elaborate soundscapes, that phrase actually has meaning) but was effectively a co-creator of their albums. Viva Elvis suffers from the lack of a comparable musical keeper of the flame. Martin's remixes of the original recordings and juxtaposition of songs in counterpoint are sufficiently diplomatic that even first-generation Beatles fans should be pleased. Ditto the sound-reproduction quality, far more lucid and enjoyable than the thick smudge of overdubbing that blots Viva Elvis.

Love also benefits from its surround-space format, which gives Cirque plenty of elbow room. By attempting to cram a similar amount of action into a conventional proscenium theater for Viva Elvis, the Cirquetry was simply overloaded. One can pick and choose amongst Love's variety of overlapping stage action, as opposed to having it all crammed into your eyeballs simultaneously.

In choosing the numbers that comprise Love, Cirque has generally opted for those without a concrete meaning. (No "Norwegian Wood," for instance.) The merits of this approach are obvious when Love strays from abstraction in "Eleanor Rigby." It's a discreet song about people who go unnoticed in life but it I heres illustrated with a parade of onstage grotesques. Where John Lennon and Paul McCartney make their points with a feather, Cirque reaches for the sledgehammer instead. "Back in the USSR," with its parody of the Beach Boys, however, is a missed opportunity for satire. There are also distinct elements of anti-clericalism (fair enough) and a perverse Anglophobia that's difficult to ignore.

Though the experience of growing up in wartime England is periodically evoked, Love's scenario doesn't attempt to psychoanalyze or "explain" The Beatles, of whom various avatars are glimpsed: a quartet of boys, four high-spirited young men and a group of blank-faced mop tops. The latter may represent how the commercial and pop-culture phenomenon of The Beatles overwhelmed their individual identities, but one doesn't want to put too fine a point on it.

Some imagery is very specific - like hipsters in Mary Quant-inspired fashions - others quite timeless. A bowler-hatted clown in a padded suit serves as a stand-in for the Establishment, as does a General Kitchener-like figure ... or is he Sgt. Pepper? Fog streams from beneath umbrellas, video projections emulate classic 007 title sequences and luminescent figures dart about in the darkness. For all of its technological dazzle, Love remains basically an acrobatic show. Nothing illustrates this better than "Something," a gorgeous ballet for solo male dancer and a quartet of female trapeze artists that's Cirque at its finest.

Trampoline jumping, much belabored in Viva Elvis, here serves to express the rebellious spirit of the times. The only truly depressing aspect of Love is seeing elements that would be ripped off outright and plunked into Viva Elvis, in a forced effort to make lightning strike twice.

"Hey Jude" provides a suggestion of closure, with an older Lennon meeting either A) his younger self or B) his son Julian, for whom the song was written or C) whomever you take him to be. The long, repetitive coda to "Hey Jude" really can't be topped, but Cirque tries with a hopelessly cluttered, everybody-get-onstage "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." It would have been better to have leapt straight to the "All You Need Is Love" encore. After all, that's the essential message of the show. All you need for Love is a boatload of cash, but this is one of those pricey Vegas tickets that is actually worth the fare. - David McKee


The Beatles™ LOVE™ by Cirque du Soleil®
7 p.m. & 9:30 p.m., Thurs.-Mon.
The Mirage
400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
(800) 963-9634