During two shows a night of the $110 million production Le Rêve in Las Vegas, director Franco Dragone oversees a cast whose stunts seem to defy nature. On stage at the opulent new Wynn Las Vegas Resort, a dozen women in ruby-red slippers swim upside down underwater in a million-gallon pool, their synchronized legs dancing above the surface. A man in a coat prances around a streetlight that floats in the air. Rain pours, doves fly, and snow falls. And that's just what the audience sees. It takes 11 technicians to light the show, 16 divers to assist underwater, 10 dressers, 14 riggers, even a full-time elevator operator. More than 800 towels are used per day -- 95 loads of laundry in all.
Le Rêve is the kind of production that only Las Vegas, with its billion-dollar casino backers, could possibly afford. And it's a form of spectacle that Dragone largely invented. The 53-year-old director was an early contributor to Canada's Cirque du Soleil troupe before forming his own production outfit in 2000. And he directed singer Céline Dion's show at Caesars Palace, which has been seen by nearly 2 million people since it opened in 2003.
Next to Cirque co-founder Guy Laliberté and casino mogul Steve Wynn, Dragone is probably the man most responsible for helping Las Vegas become the world's capital of live entertainment. Today, 86% of Vegas visitors see a live show, nearly double the percentage of a decade ago. "He has added a lot more class to the Vegas scene," says Jerry Fink, the theater reviewer for the Las Vegas Sun.
BOX OFFICE BLUES
Packing a full house in Vegas is no longer a sure thing, even for a pro like Dragone. For one thing, the competition is fierce. New York transplants Mamma Mia! and Blue Man Group, not to mention original productions like Cirque's $165 million Kà at MGM Grand, are all drawing on the same audiences. It was telling that in late November, We Will Rock You, a stage show based on the popular music of the rock group Queen, quietly shut down at the Paris Las Vegas casino. Ticket sales for both Le Rêve and Avenue Q, the Tony Award-winning musical that recently opened at the Wynn resort, have been running well below capacity, too. "Something has changed in Vegas," Dragone says. "Before, you could just open the door and people would come. Now you need to sell."
Suddenly, Dragone finds himself working feverishly to tweak Le Rêve for maximum crowd appeal at the same time he is preparing for a major new step in his career -- staging an entirely new version of Carmen on Broadway in 2007. But first he has to make sure to save Le Rêve. Last year, audience objections forced him to take out one of its most visually arresting scenes, pregnant women in white gowns falling from the sky. Although Le Rêve has no real storyline, Dragone added scenes to emphasize that it represents one man's chaotic dream. "I don't like it when people grab me by the nose and say: 'See this,"' he says with a sigh. "I want to be teased."
If there is one common thread in Dragone's work, it is that he is loath to condescend to his audience -- an approach he says comes from his working-class roots. Born in Italy, Dragone and his parents moved to the small Belgian industrial town of La Lourière when he was 6. (Dragone still operates most of the year from Belgium and employs 70 people there to work on the costumes and casting.) His father worked in a steel plant; his mother in a factory that made lamps. Franco developed a love for the theater while attending a high school for the arts. He says his parents never believed that anyone would be able to make a living putting on shows. It wasn't until 1995 that he felt comfortable taking them to one of his productions, Cirque's Alegría. "My father said: 'I'll never tell you what to do again,"' he recalls.
Dragone's backer, Steve Wynn, isn't making the same promises. He insists Le Rêve is profitable but is still recommending that Dragone add more "sensuality" to the production. "Franco and I have the same attitudes toward work," says the mogul. "We're never finished." That's for sure. As Dragone works with Wynn to tweak Le Rêve, he is already lining up financial backers for his Carmen production in New York. In Vegas, they call that doubling-down.
By Christopher Palmeri