Image: Mamma Mia!
© Joan Marcus
Mamma Mia! at Mandalay Bay—the most successful Broadway import in Vegas history—is slated to depart in January 2009, so hurry over to see the tale of a daughter hoping to learn which of her mom's three ex-boyfriends is her dad. The story is really secondary to the ABBA music, so if you are an ABBA fan, don't leave when the show seems over—three hits that don't fit in the narrative get a rousing encore-style concert performance.
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updated 2/19/2008 3:53:44 PM ET 2008-02-19T20:53:44

Back in the day — when Sin City’s bosses were focused on nothing but gambling revenue — a savvy tourist could see entertainment legends for a pittance. Imagine taking in Sinatra, Elvis, Anka and Lewis for a fraction of what they would cost now.

That was then. Today’s Las Vegas stage shows are spectacles that cost a fortune to produce. No Cirque du Soleil show, for instance, has ever cost less than $50 million to stage. The Vegas show ticket is now a significant expense for visitors. An annual survey by the Las Vegas Advisor in 2007 found the 75 so-called “A-title shows” on the Strip cost an average of $74.21 per seat; 19 shows have at least one ticket option that exceeds $100. That’s up more than 50 percent from 2006, when only 12 shows had $100-plus seats.

It’s important, then, to know which of these extravaganzas are worth your time and money. But, as with all things Las Vegas, which outing is right depends on your mood.

Say, for instance, you’re in the market for a headliner. The more things in Vegas change, the more they stay the same — at least in terms of serving up the grandest variety of only-in-Vegas legends. While 2007 saw the departure of groundbreaker Celine Dion after nearly five years at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, fret not — the House That Celine Built (for $95 million, by the way) will host Elton John’s “The Red Piano,” Bette Midler’s “The Showgirl Must Go On” and, coming this May, a production starring Cher.

These performers are taking vastly different approaches than their Canadian predecessor. Whereas Celine Dion had a Cirque-inspired 80-person dance company, Elton largely sits at his ivories, letting director Dave LaChappelle awe the audience with giant blow-ups and videos featuring Justin Timberlake and Pamela Anderson. Midler, on the other hand, does her high-energy act complete with a few of her famous characters (Soph, Delores), ramping up the bawdy banter for the Vegas crowd.

They may be the biggest names on Vegas’ biggest marquee, but plenty of others reside elsewhere. Barry Manilow’s “Music and Passion” at the Las Vegas Hilton has been a smash for three years now, and Toni Braxton keeps packing them in at the Flamingo. The double-team of comic Wayne Brady and impressionist Gordie Brown are always good for smiles over at the Venetian. A more urgent matter is Lance Burton’s magic show at the Monte Carlo. Burton is, bar none, the best showman and illusionist working the Strip today, but his contract runs out in 2009.

The other modern Las Vegas standard — the spectacle — is a relatively recent invention. It’s hard to believe it’s been only 15 years since the first resident Cirque du Soleil production, Mystere, opened at the Treasure Island. To many minds, it remains the Hershey bar of Cirque — an unadulterated, uncomplicated and searingly beautiful show. But Mystere is expected to close by 2011, to make way for something newer.

Other shows in the Cirque empire include the aquatic wonder “O” at Bellagio, the sultry cabaret of “Zumanity” at New York-New York, the techno-bravado of “Ka” at the MGM Grand and the Beatles-scored “Love” at the Mirage. By summer 2008, a sixth production will open, starring magician Criss Angel; a seventh, Elvis-themed production is expected by the end of 2009. And don’t miss the Venetian’s Blue Man Group and the Planet Hollywood’s “Stomp Out Loud,” two New York imports that look and feel like Vegas-style originals.

Image: Elton John
© Caesars Palace
With a titillating video of Pamela Anderson pole-dancing to "The Bitch is Back," Sir Elton ushered in a new era for Las Vegas Strip entertainment. The Red Piano at Caesars Palace offers both salacious carnal imagery and some seriousness, as in the sad video for "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me." It's old and new, thoughtful and funny, irreverent and genuine — in 90 minutes.
Much has been made in recent years of the arrival of Broadway shows in Vegas, but the results are a mixed bag of “Avenue Q,” “Hairspray” and “The Producers.” It seems the key to success is blending Broadway’s storytelling with Strip-style thrills. Take, for example, the aptly named “Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular.” In this staging for the Venetian, Andrew Lloyd Webber himself shortened the original opera-house-spook classic to 95 minutes and added a one-ton chandelier that hurtles to within 10 feet of the audience.

Another successful musical import is Mandalay Bay’s “Mamma Mia!,” which seems to thrive on the popularity of Abba hits; after a six-year run, it’s slated to close in January, 2009. “Spamalot” is faring well at Wynn Las Vegas, but a sure thing may arrive this spring with “Jersey Boys” at the new Palazzo Resort-Hotel. This Tony award-winner tells the tale of Las Vegas-icon Frankie Valli.

A third Vegas mainstay, the showgirl production, has been enjoying a revival in recent years. The classic “Jubilee!” continues to kick up its topless heels after 25 years, while modern interpretations include the artistic female stripteases of Crazy Horse Paris at the MGM Grand and the burlesque stars of Caesars Palace’s Pussycat Dolls Lounge. What’s more, in recent years there’s been a surge in male strip shows for women, the most respected of which is the Chippendales show at the Rio.

While it’s true that Vegas shows are no longer the bargain they once were, heavy competition has yielded new ticketing methods. Two Web-based services, ShowTickets4Locals.Com and HouseSeatsLV.Com, provide free day-of seats to members; reduced-price seats for most shows can be found at the Tix4Tonight.com and Tickets2Night.com booths (check the Web sites for locations).

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