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Friday, July 21, 2006 - Page updated at 02:35 PM

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"Love" them do: a tribute to the Beatles

St. Petersburg Times

LAS VEGAS — The Beatles on the Vegas Strip?

If you're thinking some tired tribute show with guys in bowl haircuts, wipe the image from your mind.

In a darkening theater, as four shaggy ragamuffins clutching daffodils wander across a spit of stage, the wordless harmony from "Because" bursts into your brain as you never heard it before, as if it's 1969 and John, Paul, George and Ringo are standing in a circle and you're in the middle. Aaaaah aaaah ...

You hold your breath for "Love is old, love is new."

Instead, the chugging chords that kick off "Get Back" rattle the room, the lights begin to flash, and up near the high ceiling you see couples improbably hanging from ropes in full horizontal boogie. The bobby-soxers on the bottom fall nearly to the floor on bungee cords, then vault back into their lovers' embraces, as dancers fill the stage below them.

That's just the beginning.

If you hold dear, vivid memories of the Beatles' astonishing, unparalleled impact on pop culture, their irresistible exuberance and musical genius, the new Cirque du Soleil show "Love" will bring the spirit of the band's heyday to life. And if you're too young to remember, you poor thing, it will give you a taste.

"Love" was conceived in 2000, when Cirque founder Guy Laliberte met George Harrison: Love your music, love your circus, let's do something together.

Sadly, Harrison, who died in 2001, didn't live to see the fruit of that meeting. But Laliberte developed the show with the cooperation of surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as well as Harrison's widow, Olivia, and John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono.

More directly involved was Sir George Martin, the prolific and brilliant producer who had helped the Beatles create their albums.

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Using the master tapes from Abbey Road Studios and the latest technology, Martin and his son, Giles, transformed them into a version of the Beatles' music no one has ever heard before.

The 90-minute show's soundtrack combines pieces of 130 songs — just a few notes of some, others in their entirety — with charming tapes of the Beatles goofing off in the studio. It serves the whole glorious mashup on a sound system of more than 12,000 speakers, including six built into each seat of the 2,013-seat theater.

"Love" ended up in Las Vegas after plans to base it in other cities didn't work out. It made sense for Cirque du Soleil, which was founded in Canada 22 years ago but has four other permanent shows in Las Vegas ("O," "Mystere," "Ka" and "Zumanity").

Cirque du Soleil has become as much a fixture of the Las Vegas vacation as gaming, dining and lounge shows.

"Love" is performed at the Mirage, in the theater formerly occupied by Siegfried and Roy's big-cat act. In a practice room downstairs, where young women dangle serenely in lotus poses 15 feet off the floor, you can see where the tiger cages used to be bolted to the walls.

The theater was gutted and remodeled at a cost of more than $130 million, much of it for the complicated mechanical gear needed for Cirque's brand of dreamlike, gravity-defying performance. The in-the-round plan puts no seat farther than 98 feet from the stage.

"Stage" is a fluid concept for this show, in which giant, glowing sea creatures swim through the air during "Octopus' Garden" and a billowing white sheet pours from a bed to envelop the audience during "Within You, Without You."

" Love" is not meant to be a documentary about the Beatles. In fact, in keeping with Cirque's style, it's not even particularly linear.

Developing the show was a new challenge for Laliberte and director-writer Dominic Champagne. Cirque's previous shows have all been independently conceived, not based on any existing story or work. Most of its shows do not even use language.

For "Love," they were working not just with existing music and lyrics but with perhaps the best-known and most beloved entity in 20th-century pop culture.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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