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Headliners and headdresses return to Las Vegas.  Will tourists follow?

LAS VEGAS – Penn Jillette, the half of the Penn & Teller act of magic and comedy who helped define Las Vegas nightlife for decades, took the stage the other night and watched a maskless audience but socially distanced scattered across the theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.

“We just went 421 days without a live show,” he said, referring to the forced sabbatical that lasted until the end of April, with his silent partner, Teller, finally back by his side. “My boy, it’s nice to see people at the theater. “

The next morning, less than a mile away, a troop of Cirque du Soleil acrobats were doing somersaults in the air, all wearing masks, as they warmed up on a steel-framed ship. swinging over a 1.2 million gallon pool in preparation for reopening. O “in July and a second show,” Mystery, “later this month. By the end of the year, they hope to have seven Cirque du Soleil shows at full capacity.

Fifteen months ago, this bustling desert tourist destination closed its doors almost overnight as theaters, restaurants and casinos emptied and Las Vegas faced one of the biggest economic threats in the world. his history. The stakes could not be higher as the Strip tries to emerge from the shadows of the pandemic and the first crop of shows faces a tough reality: It’s hard to open shows without tourists, and it is difficult to attract tourists without shows.

But a stroll through its bustling sidewalks last week suggests an explosion of activity, worthy – in its extravagance and this city’s appetite for risk – which has always made Las Vegas what it is. The change since last spring, measured by the return of booming crowds from morning to night, is mind-boggling. While only 106,900 tourists visited Las Vegas in April 2020, according to the Convention and Visitors Authority, some 2.6 million people visited in April – a big rebound, but still nearly a million less than that. that the city attracted before the pandemic.

“You’re in a city that used to be very irresponsible,” Jillette said in an interview, noting the exuberance of the reopening. “Not the residents, but the people who come to visit Vegas. People who don’t smoke cigars smoke cigars. People who don’t drink martinis drink martinis. People who don’t have irresponsible sex, have irresponsible sex. They are proud of it. “

Las Vegas has started filling its theaters ahead of New York City, where most Broadway shows won’t reopen until September, and other cities, though many are now rushing to catch up. “I don’t know if culturally that’s a good thing,” Jillette said. “But I will tell you that I believe we are right this time.”

The tourism-fueled city economy was staggered during the pandemic as Americans avoided planes, restaurants, theaters and crowds. Those days seem to be over.

“As soon as the governor and the county said we could open, the stations wanted us to open,” said Ross Mollison, the producer of “Absinthe,” an adult cabaret and comedy show, whose site Web reassures the guests by saying: “When you arrive at Absinthe, the Green Fairy promises you awful pleasure in an impeccable place.”

Penn & Teller started out slow, putting together an act whose first Las Vegas show began in 1993, out of respect for the wishes of its performers as well as state and local health regulations. Their first show took place on April 22, after both men were vaccinated. Last week, 250 people were dispersed in its auditorium of 1,475 people as the lights went out one night just after 9 p.m. But with the Nevada Covid-19 restrictions lifted effective June 1 by order of Governor Steve Sisolak, the show will increase capacity: It plans to sell every seat by the end of the summer, Glenn S said Alai, its producer.

They are at the front of a parade. David Copperfield is up and running, as is “Absinthe,” the Australian tribute show Bee Gees, Rich Little and a Prince. A six-show Bruno Mars residency at Park MGM in July is complete, and Usher, Miley Cyrus, Donny Osmond, Barry Manilow, Dave Chappelle, Garth Brooks, and Bill Maher are all coming to town. Star DJs have been lined up by the city’s mega clubs.

Show business has always been big business in Las Vegas, but it has become even more vital in the decades since the region lost its near-monopoly on legal casino games. Before the pandemic, there were more than 100 theaters in Las Vegas, with a total of 122,000 seats, plus 18 arenas that could accommodate an additional 400,000 people.

“More than half of the 21, 22, 23 million visitors we have each year attend a performance,” said Steve D. Hill, president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It’s a huge draw, it’s a big part of the city. It’s part of what creates the energy of this place.

Ana Olivier, designer, and her husband, Van Zyl van Vuuen, data scientist, bought tickets to four shows when they came from Atlanta for a week’s vacation.

“Honestly, we just want to get out of the house,” Olivier said as they waited to get into Penn & Teller.

Las Vegas marks this moment with characteristic excess: fireworks will light up a long stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard on Independence Day, a coordinated show (produced by Grucci, of course) choreographed on the rooftops of seven casinos.

The more cautious approach taken by most Broadway producers reflects the differences between the two cultures. Broadway theaters tend to be older and smaller, with cramped lobbies, bars, bathrooms, and seats. For purely economic reasons, it is not possible to socially distance yourself and sell enough seats to cover the costs.

Las Vegas theaters are generally large and spacious, built in sprawling casino complexes.

The pressure to reopen them, from business leaders and politicians, was enormous. Shows are powerful revenue generators for casinos, not only for ticket revenue, but also for the way they attract tourists and generally require patrons to wander through a tempting maze of slot machines, gaming tables and tables. games, restaurants and bars to find their way to the theater entrance.

For many shows, the reopening has been slow as they sailed through changing regulations and assessed crowds’ eagerness to return. “Absinthe” tried to open in October, but since it was only allowed to sell a small fraction of its 700 seats, it quickly closed: the producers decided it was not economically feasible. for a show with a large cast and a large film crew. It reopened in April when it was allowed to increase its capacity.

Despite all the optimism in the air, there are still reminders that this remains a time of uncertainty.

Performers, team members and visitors to “O” rehearsals were required to undergo coronavirus tests to enter the theater. Performers wore masks while doing their aerial acrobatics, or went to underground lodges to try on costumes and wigs that had remained intact for over a year. F. (Mask requirement has been lifted for swimmers and divers.)

Penn & Teller had to make adjustments. They no longer rush to the door to shake hands with fans when leaving, a tradition for 45 years. And now, when they look for volunteers in the audience to take the stage, they relegate them to a chair at the end of the stage, far away from Jillette or Teller.

“You won’t find me walking around a supermarket without a mask for a while,” Teller said in an interview. “I will stick to the most careful protocols that exist. We’re dying to have people on stage. Obviously, we’re not going to get into this until we’re convinced it’s the safe thing to do. “

Signs posted in casinos advertise that those who have been vaccinated do not need to wear masks, but that those who have not been vaccinated should cover their mouths – not that there are police officers standing by. walk into casinos demanding CDC vaccination cards. This means that the cast and crew of “O” are stepping out of the high precautionary Covid-is-always-with-us environment of their theater and into the decidedly more lax world of the rest of Las Vegas.

The travel and leisure audience alone will not be enough to ensure that entertainment in Las Vegas can return to what it used to be. The key question now is whether conventions return after the Zoom era. Alan Feldman, a fellow of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, said this was what he was watching most closely, although he said the growing interest in tourism was a good sign. “There is clearly pent-up demand for Las Vegas,” he said.

The producers, having survived what most describe as the most difficult time of their careers, hope that in the weeks to come Las Vegas will show the world that it is safe to return to something close to business like d habit.

“I am very confident,” said Daniel Lamarre, president of Cirque du Soleil. “We are selling at a rate that is double what we normally do. This tells me that people are just crazy to go out and see humans playing. “

Tourists make up the overwhelming majority of people who come to the Strip, but some residents of the Las Vegas area do venture out as well. John Vornsand, a retired Clark County planner who lives in nearby Henderson, had not seen a show here since Rod Stewart performed in 2019 at Caesars Palace. He was back the other night with his wife, Karen, for Penn & Teller.

“I bought the tickets on the first day of their release,” said Vornsand, who is vaccinated. “I said, ‘It’s her birthday and that’s it.'”

“We don’t feel uncomfortable,” he said. “Although I have a mask in my pocket.”

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