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Best of Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

Strip Show Biz: Countdown to Splashdown

14 February 2005

LAS VEGAS -- It's said the first person Steve Wynn called when the casino developer started conceptualizing his newest resort complex was not a financial adviser, architect, or builder. It was renowned show producer and director Franco Dragone.

Together, Wynn and Dragone are responsible for two of the most popular productions on the Strip -- "Mystere" at Treasure Island and "O" at Bellagio. Dragone is also the creative force behind Celine Dion's show, "A New Day," at Caesars Palace.

Now, Wynn and Dragone have spent the past four years planning a production that will help open Wynn's latest creation in late April, the $2.5 billion Wynn Las Vegas.

"Steve Wynn and Franco Dragone are two people who have defined entertainment in this town," said Rick Gray, general manager of entertainment operations for Wynn Las Vegas, who is working hand in hand with staff from Dragone's Belgium-based company. "They are both extremely creative individuals who demand perfection. They will present a show that goes beyond what people think."

The show -- titled "Le Reve: A small collection of Imperfect Dreams" -- will open to audiences April 29. Like "O," it will have a recognized water element. Taking a cue from "Mystere," aerial acrobatics will be part of the performance. One of the most anticipated aspects of the production is the showroom itself.

With 2,100 seats and designed as a theater in the round, the showroom's most remote seat is just 14 rows from the stage -- a mere 40-feet from the action, creating a uniquely intimate theater-going experience.

Because it is styled without a backstage, nothing is hidden from the audience. All changes to the setting must come from underneath, thus, the challenges for the designers were multiplied.

Like "O," water will be a primary element with the stage being transformed simultaneously from solid ground to a water-filled environment, all with the audience being able to look across stage at each other.

"This is easily the most difficult theater I've been associated with," said Gray, who worked with Wynn on the construction of the theater for "O." "Because of the unique nature of this theater it's just much more challenging. No one has done theater in the round in Las Vegas in a permanent setting. We are putting higher level of technology into this theater but an equal amount, if not more, than what was in `O.' Trying to fit all of that away from the audience and still find space for everything involved with this show was incredibly challenging."

Technology will play an important role in the performance, as will the use of 17 divers who will assist the performers underwater.

The pool itself must be kept at 86 degrees. The air above the pool must be at least 2 degrees warmer to reduce humidity. For the audience areas, some just three feet from the stage, the air should hover around 72 degrees.

"We had to look at this and design a system that allows all of those things to happen and hide the technology, which you can't hide the way you can with traditional theaters," Gray said. "You never see what's happening in the wings but in this particular case, it's right there in front of you."

Cost estimates for the showroom vary. The Review-Journal reported in April that the showroom and production together would top the $100 million range. Officials from Wynn and Dragone are not divulging any figures.

"It's almost a common theme in Las Vegas to say we spent this much and it's bigger and better," said Peter Wagg, vice president of commercial for Dragone. "It's almost like the size is the selling point.

That's not the way we think. We believe it's the experience of the show and connecting with an audience. We want to give them a fantastic show at a great value and have them leave the show feeling enriched and moved by what they've seen."

Gray, who said the theater has a vastly different look from the European Opera House feel used for "O," said the setting is hard to put into cost terminology.

"Honestly, the idea of putting numbers to it is difficult," Gray said. "Not because I couldn't tell you almost to the penny what this thing cost, but I think we have a very different kind of theater. It's a different look and it's a different scale. The way it is configured, the dynamics are so totally different that it's hard to grasp."

Wynn and Dragone officials would not allow a Review-Journal reporter to view the theater; only photos and a televised feed on a video monitor backstage.

The story line for Le Reve is also being kept heavily under wraps, although concepts for the show was under development long before the cast of 70 was chosen.

The performers have been rehearsing since last summer in Belgium under the direction of Dragone.

On his company's Web site, Dragone says his aim for the show "Is to create an entirely new universe, to transport the spectators into a unique world where the theater, performance and audience become one and the same reality. To take them on a magical, sacred journey that touches their emotions in a way that is different to anything I have done before."

In January, the troupe moved into its permanent home, tentatively titled the "Aqua Theater," tucked inside Wynn Las Vegas.

"When you physically sit in the theater to watch rehearsals, it's very intimate and very personal," Wagg said. "You're so close to the performance, that the you become part and parcel of what's happening on the stage."

Cast members -- primarily Americans and Canadians -- were hired for their physical skills and acrobatic capabilities. Several synchronized swimmers are part of the cast. But, unlike previous Dragone shows, the ability to act will also play a heavy role.

"When we did the auditions, casting was of course based on physical performance," said Louis Parenteau, president of Dragone. "But, since Franco's vision is to have a show that is more theatrical because of the proximity and the intimacy of this theater, that meant the people we cast not only had to be physically skilled, but we also evaluated their capacity to act, to dance, and to interact with the public."

The cast and crew -- which combined totals almost 200 -- are employees of Wynn Las Vegas, rather than Dragone's company. It was a decision made jointly by both parties.

"We create and produce shows, and we hire the artists," Parenteau said. "But Steve Wynn is renowned for the quality of programs he puts in place for his employees and it made sense to have our artists feel part of that family. We have a good relationship and we're confident our people will be treated well."

While construction crews work 20-hour days to prepare the 2,700-room resort for its opening, the cast and crew is settling into a rehearsal schedule that will soon lead to twice-a-night performances of the 90-minute show, five nights a week. Tickets are expected to cost $121 each.

If anyone understands the importance of having entertainment play a role in a successful casino opening it's Wynn, who opened The Mirage in 1989 with Siegfried & Roy headlining the main showroom. Three years later, Wynn introduced Las Vegas audiences to Cirque du Soleil.

In 1993, Cirque du Soleil's "Myst?re" helped open Treasure Island, followed in 1998 by "O" at Bellagio.

"This town is based on big casinos with a solid big infrastructure and they play it safe," Parenteau said. "What Steve Wynn did here was take a big gamble on an organization with a lot of ideas that was new in the game with no brand identity and no infrastructure. We take it as an honor and a big responsibility to put together a show that enhances this property."

Strip Show Biz: Countdown to Splashdown is republished from