That Old Feeling: The Show at the Casino

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“This is a fabulous, extraordinary madhouse. All around is desert sand with pink and purple mountains on the horizon. All the big hotels are luxe to the last degree. Even now, in the pre-Christmas slump, there are myriads of people tearing away at the fruit machines and gambling, gambling, gambling for twenty-four hours a day... masses of earnest morons flinging their money down the drain.... The gangsters who run the places are all urbane and charming.... They are curious products of a most curious adolescent country. Their morals are bizarre in the extreme. They are generous, mother-worshippers, sentimental and capable of much kindness. They are also ruthless, cruel, violent and devoid of scruples. [Desert Inn owner Joe Glazer is] over the moon with delight at having got me under his wing.... I believe him to be honest according to his neon lights...” —entry from Noel Coward’s diary, December 3, 1955

“Well, it is all over bar the shouting which is still going on. I have made one of the most sensational successes of my career and to pretend that I am not absolutely delighted would be idiotic.... The first night, from the social-theatrical point of view, was fairly sensational. Frank Sinatra chartered a special plane and brought Judy Garland, the Bogarts, the Nivens, etc.; then there were Joan Fontaine, Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Joe Cottens ... The Wednesday night supper show was thrilling. Cole Porter came and Tallulah and the Van Johnsons, and it really was sensational.... Last night was exciting and strangely moving. The management presented me with a beautiful cigarette-box and I made a speech and everyone became very sentimental. Ethel Merman was in the front row and in floods.... It has all been a triumphant adventure and I feel very happy.” —entries from Noel Coward’s diary, June-July 1956

What’s entertainment? The Rat Pack at the Sands and the Jerry Lewis telethon at the TKTKTKTK. Wayne Newton and the Royal Lippizaner Stallions. Pontoon-breasted showgirls and balloon-boobed drag queens. Buildings that mimic a pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, the Manhattan skyline and a rocker’s guitar — the whole Hey-Why-Not School of Architecture. The women’s bodybuilding championship finals, and Mike Tyson sharking off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear. The densest concentration of fine restaurants in the world, and the biggest all-you-can-eat groaning boards. Debbie Reynolds and the World Wrestling Federation. Picasso at Bellagio, the Hermitage at the Venetian, and slot machines at the airport. The late Elvis, corseting his paunch in a spangled white jump-suit, and quickie weddings officiated by an Elvis impersonator. The Mob and Middle America.

Las Vegas has embraced, produced all this and more. It is the Holy Land, a stretch of desert where Jews made miracles. Incorporated in 1911 — the same year that the ragpickers-turned-moguls from New York and Chicago moved out to a sle epy Los Angeles suburb called Hollywood — the city of Las Vegas became the Grand Idea of Las Vegas because Bugsy Siegel, a Jewish gangster backed by his partner (and executioner) Meyer Lansky, saw what Adolph Zukor and Sam Goldwyn saw in movies: a way to turn dreams into money. I’d say Vegas now rivals Hollywood for mythmaking. Surpasses it, perhaps, for here the spectator is also the protagonist. Vegas replaces the vicarious dreams on the screen with the palpable (though just as elusive) dream of hitting the jackpot.

Except for New York and maybe L.A., no American city has so intoxicated and infuriated writers. In his introduction to “Literary Las Vegas: The Best Writing About America’s Most Fabulous City,” Nick Tosches diagnoses the town as “a religion, a disease, a nightmare, a paradise for the misbegotten. It is a place where fat old ladies in wheelchairs, like wretched, disfigured supplicants at Lourdes, roll and heave in ghastly faith toward the slot machines.... A place where Ken and Barbie can go to be bad, to samba beneath the artificial tree of unknowing.... A place where a theology of profoundest mediocrity makes of every Saul a Paul. A place where miracles do happen, along the lines of Frank Sinatra’s hair.”

To our immediate point, the city is America’s apogee, nadir and living museum, a repository of art and entertainment for all brows: high, medium, low and no. As TIME Magazine’s de facto Vegas correspondent I’ve made perhaps a dozen forays there, to see how the town’s entrepreneurs have expanded and devolved the notion of entertainment. Here are some recollections of Vegas shows and showmen in a town that has as as great a lure for performers as for audiences —the place where Tupac Shakur went to die, and where Noel Coward came to be reborn.



LIBERACE, 1986

The lights dimmed, and Mr. Showmanship made his entrance, flying across the huge stage in a cocoon of feathers, enough for a whole flock of purple ostriches. Did we hear someone say “Peter Pansy”? Go on and laugh. Liberace didn’t care; he knew you’d soon be laughing with him. Perhaps by the first-act finale, with a gigantic Statue of Liberty mock-up in center stage holding a candelabrum, skyrockets flaring on the back scrim, 36 Rockettes performing their automated scissors kick — and then Glitter Beau Peep his own bad self emerging from the stars-and-stripes Rolls-Royce in a red, white and blue hot-pants outfit, and flourishing his baton like the most cunning majorette from Camp Camp.

This show wasn’t in Vegas, but it was Vegas. Wherever Liberace performed, on the Strip or, like this one, at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall, he brought the town’s profligate kitsch with him. Indeed, he may have created it. Natural son of the Ziegfeld Follies and ancient drag balls, godfather of many forms of 80s and 90s entertainment from glitter rock to Siegfried and Roy’s Mirage show and Cirque du Soleil, enabler of “Will & Grace “ and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Liberace defined an entertainment genre as true to the end as to the beginning of the 20th century. Which was a pretty impressive achievement for a fellow who might once have been laughed off as a novelty act, a Tiny Tim at the Baldwin.

His importance in the history of American entertainment cannot be overestimated, but I’ll try. From his first eminence in the early 50s as the rage of syndicated TV, Liberace was a vision out of a closet that had yet to be opened in mainstream show business. The silken singsong voice, the candelabrum, the welded dimples and fluty presence, the references to his sainted mother Frances, all made him a figure of fun — the Gorgeous George of mid-cult music. As Michael Herr observed in 1986, “Never before, at least knowingly, had a man ever had the big steel balls to show himself like that, and on television.”

He did more: he exaggerated the very elements of his persona and performance that had earned him his early notoriety. The costumes were soon fit for a king — King Frederick of Hollywood — with their exotic plumes and freighted trains. His hair was not so much teased as taunted; his candelabra were large enough to light the Library of Congress reading room; he wore diamonds as big as the tits of the gangsters’ escorts sitting at the front tables. The patter between numbers became bolder, dropping innuendos like anvils.

Finally it was impossible to make fun of Liberace, because he was having too much fun making fun of himself. He was in on the joke; he may have created it. In doing so he exploited the showbiz principle that nothing succeeds like shameless excess. Soon members of the rock glitterati — beginning with Elvis and Little Richard, peaking with Elton John and Patti LaBelle and Boy George —were raiding the wardrobes Liberace had stocked. He gave audiences what they never knew they wanted: a polyester blend of classics and crass, of Van Cliburn and Van Halen. Oh, yes: and their money’s worth of high dazzle. They lapped it up like kitten at a golden milk bowl.

The Music Hall crowd was no different, They laughed as he sat down on his studded coattails and remarked, “No kiddin’, if the rhinestones are turned the wrong way it’ll kill ya.” They gave three separate ovations to Lee’s new “friend, valet and chauffeur.” (The previous holder of those titles had sued Liberace in 1982 for palimony; the action was dismissed two years later.) They cheered when he summoned a woman from the audience to dance onstage with him. And at the end, when he sashayed to the stage apron to shake hands with the audience, his elderly fans rushed down the aisles with a fervor not seen since the last stampede at the Medicare office. The evangelist of kitsch took one more bow, waved, and vanished — poof!



SIEGFRIED AND ROY, 1990

Four basic formats of Vegas entertainment have survived since the Rat Pack days. The Ziegfeld-style revue chugs along with Les Folies Bergère (which predates Cats but still has, shall we say, legs). The headlining comics (George Carlin, Don Rickles) and singers (Diana Ross, Frankie Avalon), though middle-aged country stars do well; Reba’s a fave. (Celine Dion we’ll get to later.) Impressionists might seem an endangered species these days — what young actors have personalities and voices distinct enough to parody, as Frank Gorshin once did with Kirk Douglas, and Rich Little with Johnny Carson? — but Danny Gans has his own big room at the Mirage; and the “Legends” shows, with fake Elvises and faux Streisands, mix impersonation with nostalgia-on-the-cheap. The magicians, like Lance Burton (whose rube charm oddly evokes both Clint Eastwood and Liberace) and the oily David Copperfield, are younger but their schtick is ageless.

The glammiest illusionists, Siegfried and Roy, have played one Vegas room or another since 1967. For ages they were thought of, if at all, as corn for hipsters. When Paul Shaffer would effuse about their fabulosity to Letterman, the unknowing audience had to assume that S&R were another so-bad-they’re-cool item on which the cognoscenti could lavish their adoration and condescension. Then, in 1990, S&R opened at Steve Wynn’s new Mirage resort in an extravaganza directed by John Caird and John Napier, the Royal Shakespeare Company stalwarts responsible for “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Les Misérables.” And, in the old theatrical maxim, people who came to jeer stayed to cheer.

The show changed the town. S&R’s Mirage gig was the “Jazz Singer,” the “Blue Suede Shoes,” the “Desmoiselles d’Avignon” of Vegas shows. Wynn’s $28 million had bankrolled an astounding farrago of illusion and sorcery, acrobats and armies of the knights, vanishing tigers and elephants, and leather, leather everywhere. Influenced by what Cirque du Soleil had started (it was then only six years and two shows old), and by what Broadway had forgotten, the S&R show transformed the traditional magic act by ratcheting music-hall spectacle up a notch: a larger stage, grander effects, a cast of many dozens... plus the stars, mixing authority with intimacy, and their gorgeous props, the white tigers.

S&R’s magical mystery tour-de-force instantly became the standard for Vegas entertainment; the three Cirque shows in town (“Mystère,” “O” and “Zumanity”), the $67-million “EFX” that ran for nearly a decade at the MGM Grand and the current Celine Dion sound-and-light concert at Caesars Palace are among its spawn. The 90-min. evening went for $78.35 a ticket (including two drinks and a glossy program). In the early 90s, it was the priciest entertainment on the Strip, with the possible exception of an all-night massage. But Siegfried & Roy gave value for money: the 35-min. opening, with mechanical monsters that no Broadway chandelier or helicopter could match for very special effect; the extended at-home segment with Roy and his pet beasties; and the finale, where Siegfried magically spun Roy on the point of a giant spike that penetrated Roy’s body, and from which he impossibly but plausibly emerged unscathed.

Larger than life, nearly vaster than Vegas, they made a droll pair: Siegfried Fischbacher (now 64, going on infinity), the showman, a blond effigy of pompadoured, looney-Teutonic swank that rose above and annihilated self-parody; and Roy Horn (59), the smiling, gentle, dark-haired lover and mesmerizer of exotic beasts. Together, they formed not just the longest-lived Vegas tandem (except for Steve and Eydie) but the finest example of a showbiz marriage (tied with Steve and Eydie). S&R had plied their act for so many decades, and it ran so smoothly, that an onlooker might have forgotten that the animals onstage were not holographic creations. They were creatures whose strength and lightning reflexes could not be bred or trained out of them.

On that count, Jeffrey Katzenberg could testify. At a Las Vegas video convention in August 1994, Katzenberg, then the Disney movie czar, was joined onstage by an adult lion to tout “The Lion King,” the most successful film in the company’s history. Suddenly the beast wrapped its paw around Katzenberg’s thigh. The audience gasped, the trainer scrambled, and the wiry mogul wriggled free, raising his arms in victory.

Roy was not so lucky. As the world knows, he was mauled on stage last month by one of his pets. But, honestly, Siegfried and Roy had been making tigers vanish in an orgasm of purple smoke for so long that their act had long ago started to look glazed. Indeed, in 1995 a Hollywood movie star passed along to TIME editors a rumor sweeping Vegas: that Roy had died and been replaced by another performer whose faced had been surgically altered to simulate Roy’s. It was a tantalizing tale, but recent events give it the lie. Otherwise, a new, miraculously healed Roy would pop out of one of Siegfried’s false-bottomed boxes. If Vegas is a place where, as Tosches wrote (cynically), “miracles do happen,” a million fans — and the owners of the Mirage — are praying that Siegfried can make it so.



DEBBIE DOES VEGAS, 1996

To love Las Vegas is to be a size freak. Every new hotel is the biggest, every new show the most expensive, every glitzy costume the most faaaabulous! And then there was Debbie. To the owner and star of the Debbie Reynolds Hotel/Casino/Hollywood Movie Museum, smaller was better. It was also all she could afford. Reynolds bought and spruced up the 200-room Paddlewheel Hotel for just $10 million, which is valet-tip money to Steve Wynn. For three years, Debbie made do with her own perky energy. And made more of less. “Welcome to my new little theater!” she told visitors to her nightly show. “Doncha think it’s cute?”

Debbie was 19 when she teamed with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor for “Singin’ in the Rain” in 1952. When we caught her in Vegas, Debbie was 63 and still cute. Her audiences — her age or older, and with hair the color of a cloudless Vegas sky — might have come thinking (as she joked), “We’re gonna go see Debbie before she dies.” But the star of “Tammy and the Bachelor,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and some messy 50s headlines held a platinum will under that blond perm; her daughter, Carrie Fisher, suggested as much in the fond, acerbic novel and film “Postcards from the Edge.” The will was matched by a sweetly defiant retro-vision that looked back to the movies’ glory days, from the 20s through the 60s. Who else dared to build and stock her own Hollywood museum?

In 1970 when MGM auctioned off a good part of its priceless heritage, Reynolds was there to buy some of the costumes. For years she tried to interest moguls in financing a movie museum in Hollywood. Without avail; the bastards had no more sense of their industry’s history than a Sunset Strip hooker has of her last trick. Then she had the idea to blend America’s nostalgia for her with its nostalgia for old Hollywood.

The museum space — a movie theater, showing clips and costumes, and one small room with, among other treasures, Marilyn Monroe’s “Seven Year Itch” dress and one of the “Citizen Kane” Rosebud sleds — displayed only a tenth of the boots and booty, some 3,000 pieces, that had Reynolds collected from other auctions and such friends as Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller and Ann-Margret. Debbie even pays tribute to an ex-friend: in the theater is a “Cleopatra” headdress worn by Elizabeth Taylor, who seduced and married Debbie’s first husband, Eddie Fisher. A true collector hoards everything, including bad memories. A true performer puts it all, the pain as well as the pleasure, on display. Reynolds is both.

In the hotel’s vest-pocket casino was a slot game called Debbie’s Hollywood Reels. If three smiling Debbies turned up, you got $200 for your quarter. It would have been lovely if Reynolds had been able to buck the even longer odds of making a killing with her brave quest. But the real Debbie, forever smiling through lousy luck, could not sell Little in a town that loves Big, couldn’t get people interested in old costumes without leggy chorines or drag queens inside. The place went bankrupt and closed in 1998. The following year it was bought by Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, which planned to stage their matches there. But McMahon soon dumped the property on the open market, on the grounds that, for his vision, it was just too small.



k.d. lang, 2003

Is there a place for “small” entertainment in the casino culture? To find out, I went to Foxwoods, a Connecticut casino whose first distinction is the catchiest, Sinatriest jingle on East Coast radio. As lounge singer John Pizzarelli intones it: “Living large, get on board,/ this is it, it’s your reward,/ Take a seat, and have a ball,/ Yeah, let’s thrill to the wonder of it all.”

Foxwoods is one of two local gaming spas owned by Native Americans; Mohegan Sun is about 15 miles down the road. I might pick the latter for swank ambiance and loose slots, but Foxwoods has by far the classier list of entertainers. The November-March roster boasts pop singers from each of the past five decades (B.B. King and Paul Anka; The Temptations and Four Tops; Lynyrd Skynyrd and STYX; The Commodores and Kenny Loggins; Seal), plus comedians from the HBO-VH1-Comedy Central axis (Carlin, Gallagher, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart). Over the same span, Mohegan Sun makes do with Charo, Vicki Lawrence, Jimmy Webb, Lainie Kazan and a Legends show called The Rat Back Is Back! Though, I confess, I am beguiled by a certain one-day-only performer, billed as “Paul Burrell, Former Royal Butler and Confidant to Diana, Princess of Wales.” Upon request, he will saw a royal reputation in two.

I was at Foxwoods to see k.d. lang, she of the pure alto voice and impeccable taste in song selection and presentation. She prowled the stage in a black suit and bare feet, creating an easy intimacy, striking as natural a rapport with her audience as with the boys in the band. All of us were family, and lang acted as if she’d just been coaxed to sing something after dinner. Or at a picnic, since hot dogs, popcorn, sodas and fries were on sale outside the theater.

Or, possibly, a union rally for lumberjacks, stevedores or teamsters — there were a lot of gruff, hefty, plaid-shirted figures in attendance. These were kd’s ladies, lang’s groupie-posse. While some were content to utter a sweetly desperate “We love you, kd!”, others shouted out bolder lust; they all but threw their room keys on stage. lang, who apparently has seen this one or twice before at her concerts, tossed the randier fans a Cheshire Cat smile and moved on to her next number, beautifully phrased and felt. She made sure the evening had something for everyone, even the two heterosexuals in the audience (my wife and me).



CELINE DION, 2003

We travel from foresty Connecticut back to the Navada desert, and to another world of entertainment: from k.d. lang, a singer whose show has no production values, to Celine Dion, one whose show — “A new Day...,” at Caesars — is all production values. But then, so are Dion’s songs. They describe a narrative arc that accelerates from whisper to sexual-musical climax and beyond, to kettledrum apocalypse. Dion has the big, reedy voice to support, if not to justify, this kind of melodrama. But how could this Brobdingnagian thrush-work be visualized, and sustained for nearly two hours? How could she expand Dion’s songbook, and her plebeian stage presence, into what Siegfried and Roy and Cirque du Soleil have led audiences to demand in a Vegas show?

Paging Franco Dragone. For a dozen years he had directed all the Cirque productions, from its first tent show to the great Vegas water spectacle “O.” Now he was free-lancing, and available to segue from one Quebec institution to another. He surrounded himself with three Cirque collaborators — designer Michel Crête, associate director Pavel Brun and costumer Dominique Lemieux — and was was given a budget that could have financed every new Broadway show this season. Then again, Broadway couldn’t afford Dragone, with his visual poetry and profligacy. Maybe Broadway wouldn’t want him. Most current Manhattan musicals have a cramped and tatty look. They can’t or don’t compete with the casino shows’ huge casts (“A New Day...” has a company of 56) and sets to make you goggle-eyed. That’s why, in terms of relative splendor, Broadway is now Vegas’ off-Broadway.

Before the show begins, a huge (all right, everything in “A New Day...” is outsize, oversize, megasize; so from now on, assume that every noun in the rest of this section is preceded by the adjective “huge”) CGI-gilded mirror displays the audience to itself, via hidden cameras. This keeps most of the fans diverted while others buy programs ($20!), CDs and drinks. Then the show starts ($87.50 for most seats, $204 for the front rows), and Dragone gives them their money’s worth.

He and his team fill the 120-ft.-wide stage with amazing vistas and visions. An ancient colonnade materializes, cushioned in racing clouds, streaked by lightning. A Times Square scene reveals Dion on a Videotron above a mass of dancers who freeze as she dances through them. For “If I Could,” a wraith of vapor shimmers over a wounded, bare old oak and it blossoms leaves, while a “real” (plastic) tree sprouts from a hole in the stage, and flames lick the starry sky. Now it’s night and we’re on an old Roman piazza, with one man clinging to a street lamp like a creature from a Tom Otterness sculpture; the square lights up to reveal houses, stars, birds flying above (all CGI). An empty stage is imbued with the image of a wharf, a river, a city skyline, the Chrysler Building. (The automobile company helped pick up the tab here, but the view is still superb.) At the end — “My Love Will Go On” — the moon approaches the earth, and the evening ends in shooting stars and meteor showers.

Vegas has long prided itself on offering too much of a muchness. “A New Day...” dares to present too much of a too-muchness — a blessed excess of wretched excess. This is Dragone’s old work on a gigantic scale: Cirque de Magritte, Cirque de Surreal, Cirque de Stupendous. And not so much Cirque de Celine. She sings the songs, she works hard, she chats a little. It’s her show, but Dragone’s triumph. And speaking as one who has no passion for or interest in Celine Dion, I’m obliged to say I was hugely enthralled.



ZUMANITY, 2003

Who are these creatures writhing on the hourglass-shaped stage at the New York-New York resort in Las Vegas? At first, the answer is simple: they are the brightly-plumaged avian and alien figures of a typical Cirque du Soleil extravaganza. Since 1984, Cirque’s impresarios have taught the world to expect the impossible — both in the body-bending skills of its brilliant acrobats and in the magic that can be hatched from the crossbreeding of circus (without animals) and theater (without limits). And since 1992, when Steve Wynn tucked one of their touring tent shows behind the Mirage, they have been doing it in Vegas.

But the creatures of “Zumanity” ... it seems they really are doing it. They certainly are writhing, like the sensuous denizens of Fellini Satyricon. They caress their own perfect bodies, curl into one another’s groins, approximate every element of foreplay, aft-play and just plain play. Two gorgeous women strip to swim. Two tautly muscled men fight and then kiss, a long kiss. A dwarf soars to the ceiling with a blond goddess. Audience members are invited onstage — literally, they lie down on the stage — to join the menagerie as they and the show reach all kinds of climaxes. “Zumanity” is the exotic turned erotic, an orgy raised to the empyrean of art.

Or, in words of one syllable, it’s Cirque’s sex show.

Nudity and ribaldry have been a staple of Las Vegas entertainment since Siegel’s day, the bosomy chorus girls parading behind the comics and crooners. Sexual fantasy nicely complemented the patrons’ economic fantasy (that they could make a bundle at the tables and slots) and solidified the town’s reputation as a Disneyland for adults. Truth to tell, though, today’s topless shows are pretty pallid; T&A could stand for Tired and Anodyne. The entertainment is mostly rote, the music interchangeable from one show to the next, the silicon-breasted dancers resembling the inflatable dolls of a solipsist’s dreams. Somebody had to put a little imagination, danger, heat into the old format.

Cirque knows all about reinvention. The first touring show of this team of Montreal street performers was called “Le Cirque Reinventé”: it turned the big top in to performance art. Then Cirque reinvented itself for Vegas — met the town halfway and improved them both — with “Mystère,” which celebrates its tenth anniversary at the Mirage next month, and the all-time-great water show “O,” which turned five last month. These shows apotheosized the Vegas spectacle —not just Siegfried and Roy, but Siegfried times Roy. “Zumanity,” written and directed by Dominic Champagne and René Richard Cyr, is another significant advance: a leap of faith, maybe a quintuple somersault, into the erotic unknown. It’s a more mysterious descendant of “Mystère.” It’s like “O,” but wetter. The “Oh!” is not an exclamation but an eruption of sexual rapture.

Really, “Zumanity” is its own species, and intimate in every sense of the word. It’s less a typical Las Vegas revue than a European-style cabaret —“divine decadence,” in Sally Bowles’ phrase — presided over by Joey Arias, a drag queen. He’s a drag monarch, really, since he patrols the stage with such regal authority, and he keeps the proceedings purring without embarrassment.

In a Cirque show, there must be clowns (I hear some of you sighing), and “Zumanity” has four of them, dressed as Puritans protesting the show. Their function is to express, and then undercut, the apprehensions of the more delicate patrons. “Do you want to be aroused in a public place?” one of the Puritans shouts censoriously at the show’s start. “Yeah!” the crowd roars back, as forcefully as a Roman mob choosing lions over Christians. “Are you prepared for the appalling debauchery about to commence?” (You know the answer.) Later the Puritans surrender to prurience and fornicate with anything in reach: one another, members of the audience, a lifesize doll that actually does come to life and tries clumsily, comically, to seduce a fellow in the front row. Arousal! Appalling! And most deftly done.

There are a few nods to old-fashioned burlesque — notably the striptease by Alex Garcia, a Cuban masterpiece of sculptured sinew who summons up legends of superhuman studs in Havana nightclubs of the Batista era. But without going full-frontal. The tone of “Zumanity” is naughty, not dirty, and the nudity never exceeds the tasteful topless variety. Still, your Puritan aunt might squirm at a sensational solo act in which a redheaded woman binds herself in cords suspended from the ceiling and moans with each tightening of the cords around her body. The piece ends in an auto-asphixiation that could be suicidal or ecstatic (or both); it transports her to the heavens, and she vanishes.

Another strip number reveals more than flesh; it shows how the show’s directors think through every scene. Five men are watching a football game (a taped loop that lasts about a minute, then is repeated) on TV, when a luscious blond appears. She dances slowly, sinuously, in front of and on top of the TV set — and the men ignore her for the vision of heavily padded athletes patting one another on the butt. Finally four other women storm on stage, seize the chairs the men have been sitting in and perform a sexy quintet, finding excitement in dancing for themselves. A story of domestic ennui, enacted every Sunday afternoon, becomes here a gaudy parable of frustration and liberation.

“Isn’t sex beautiful?” asks Arias after one routine. “It is, when you have a partner.” “Zumanity” is at its most beautiful in its duets. Two women shuck off their dresses and slip into a large, transparent semi-circular bowl — it might be a swimming pool, a cocktail glass, the Earth’s Southern hemisphere, a placenta — and execute languorous acrobatics alone, then in tandem. One women dives down along the surface of the bowl and emerges in the other’s arms. The piece accumulates a lovely underwater lubricity; it is “O,” rated R.

Two men — one black, one blond — confront each other in a circle. Their battle is an apache dance, the black throwing the blond to the floor, the blond locking his legs around his opponent. When the fight is at its fiercest, they kiss, for perhaps 30 seconds, and for once you can hear a collective gasp from the audience. The men part, all action and passion spent, and retreat into their separate selves. It’s a ravishing and beautifully choreographed spot.

A new Cirque show usually finds many of its cast members from older shows. This time only two performers and two musicians are Cirque veterans. But then, the requirements for “Zumanity” were more eccentric. The players include a specialist in “body dislocation” (who twists and folds his limbs into such contortions, he becomes a one-man Kama Sutra), two very fat ladies (who don’t sing) and a Brazilian dwarf. This might sound like side-show exploitation, but the mood here is celebratory. “Zumanity” teaches us that the human zoo contains multitudes; that the ideal body is the one, of whatever size or shape, we can use with skill and joy; that everyone is sexy and every thing is beautiful; and that, in our secret souls, when our desires are unmasked, we are all freaks.

Or we think we are. In the evening’s top show-stopper, the dwarf, Alan Jones Silva, is first seen observing a blond goddess, Olga Vershinina, as she floats high above him wrapped in long, flowing silk straps. He might be Rumplestiltskin watching Rapunzel. Then he helps her fly by holding the lower reaches of silk and running across the floor. Then — astonish us! — he takes wing and soars, as she lifts him to her. They kiss and he somersaults through the air, like Peter Pan or Icarus, before the reverie concludes and they return to Earth. The number is up there with the bungee ballet in “Mystère” as an expression of airborne rapture.

Cirque shows have always been erotic; the orchestration of handsome bodies in amazing contortions triggers an almost priapic thrill of appreciation. “Zumanity” is simply this principle made explicit. But at the end of the show, as two senior citizens are brought from the audience to dance together — first tentatively, then springing into a graceful acrobatic pas de deux — we realize that the human body’s most sensuous organ is the hea