Price: The Lion King at Mandalay Bay
2009 MGM Mirage
With its visually stunning staging, gorgeous costuming and familiar songs, "The Lion King" is a ready-made Vegas production that was born elsewhere. The Tony-winning musical, replaced "Mamma Mia!" at the Mandalay Bay in early 2009. Prices start at $53.
updated 9/4/2009 9:54:38 AM ET 2009-09-04T13:54:38

If there’s one constant in Las Vegas, it’s change. Every year, the city bids farewell to one crop of performers to make way for another wave in the endless pursuit of giving visitors more reasons to come back.

Elton John and Celine Dion leave the $95 million building known as the Colosseum only to be replaced by spectacles from Bette Midler and Cher. Gone is the venerable ABBA hit “Mamma Mia!” from the Mandalay Bay, making way for Disney’s “The Lion King.” Ditto for “Stomp Out Loud” at Planet Hollywood, replaced by “Peepshow,” Toni Braxton at Flamingo, replaced by Donny & Marie, and impressionist Danny Gans at The Mirage, replaced by singing ventriloquist Terry Fator. (Gans, a Vegas institution for more than a decade, moved to Encore Las Vegas in early 2009 but died at age 51 two months later.)

Even Cirque du Soleil, the most enduring name in Vegas entertainment, doesn’t rest on its laurels, opening the magic show Criss Angel Believe at the Luxor in 2008 and debuting an Elvis-themed production at the Aria Resort-Casino, both of which open in winter of 2009.

And on it goes, perhaps even more so these days when the recession has put a kibosh on some of the biggest plans for new multi-billion-dollar resorts and hotel expansions. It leaves the stage as the one part of Vegas operations that can be varied with fresh spectacles for comparatively little extra money.

That’s not to say it’s inexpensive for visitors. Long gone are the days when Sin City’s bosses made most of their profits at the tables and shows were loss leaders for casino play. Whereas Sinatra, Elvis and the like were bargains—often free!—to guests in their day, today the Vegas show ticket can be a significant expense. An annual survey by the Las Vegas Advisor in 2009 found the 80 so-called “A-title shows” on the Strip cost an average of $76.18 per seat. Twenty-five shows have at least one ticket option that exceeds $100. Compare that to 2006, when only 12 shows had any $100-plus seats.

It’s more important than ever, 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. Dion and John may be gone, but Bette’s “The Showgirl Must Go On” is a witty and visual romp through the Divine Miss M’s greatest hits and bits, while her fellow headliner at the Colosseum, Cher, models no fewer than 20 of her outlandish Bob Mackie gowns.

Those may be the biggest names on Vegas’ biggest marquee, but plenty of others reside elsewhere. Barry Manilow’s “Ultimate Manilow: The Hits” at the Las Vegas Hilton has been a smash for four years now, kept fresh each year with Manilow reshuffling his lineup and even the name of the show. The most famous Osmonds offer up old-school nostalgia in their sibling act at the Flamingo, TV star Wayne Brady keeps cracking them up at the Venetian and “America’s Got Talent” winner Fator looms large with his singing turtle and uncanny Etta James impressions at the Mirage. Magic lovers can do no wrong by heading to the Monte Carlo for Lance Burton, another Vegas legend.

As we noted, Cirque continues to truck along. Nobody could have predicted back in 1993 when the first resident Cirque du Soleil production, Mystere, opened at the Treasure Island, that an empire would be born. Despite talk that it would close in 2011, Mystere—to many minds the gold standard of Cirque—just earned itself another contract through 2016.

Image: Jersey Boys at Palazzo Las Vegas
Palazzo Las Vegas
Frankie Valli has had a long career in Las Vegas, which is why this moving and perfectly executed version of the Tony-winning Broadway musical "Jersey Boys" feels very much at home on the Las Vegas Strip. The cast is top-notch, the music both familiar and comforting and the story provides fascinating insight into making and unmaking of one of the 20th century’s most important pop acts, the Four Seasons. Prices start at $62.70.
Other shows in the Cirque ouevre 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, the Beatles-scored "Love" at the Mirage and “Criss Angel Believe” starring the eponymous “Mindfreak” star. The seventh, based on the music of Elvis, has yet to be named but boasts Broadway and music-video legend Vince Paterson as its creator. And, while it’s not a Cirque show, "Blue Man Group" at the Venetian has significant Cirque elements of abstract comedy and visual flair.

Much has been made in recent years of the arrival of Broadway shows in Vegas, but the results are a mixed bag. Several have come and gone this decade—“Avenue Q,” “Hairspray,” “Spamalot” and “The Producers” among those—and 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.

Two more recent Tony-winning entries seem to be thriving, though, despite little Vegasizing. “Jersey Boys,” the biography of Vegas-icon Frankie Valli and his Four Seasons as told through their music, is a consistent sellout at the Palazzo Resort-Hotel. And word of mouth has been strong for “The Lion King,” also benefiting from a score of pop hits familiar from the classic Disney cartoon and lots of radio play.

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. The biggest news in this area is “Peepshow,” a burlesque production at Planet Hollywood featuring live singing of original songs by Tony-winning creator-director Jerry Mitchell and featuring a rotating duo of name-brand stars. The show opened, for instance, with ex-Spice Girl Mel B and "Dancing With The Stars" winner Kelly Monaco in the lead and moved on to former “Girls Next Door” star Holly Madison after that.

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 various booths that dot the Vegas Strip. (Check the Web site for locations.)

Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

    The Bellagio's fountain show entertains visitors nightly. In the background is Bally's Las Vegas, left, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a 50-story Eiffel Tower replica in front. Over 37.5 million people visit Las Vegas each year. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fremont Street Experience

    Located in downtown Las Vegas, this exciting pedestrian promenade is home to approximately 16 million lights, making it one of the largest LED screens in the world. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Looking for Lady Luck

    Casion visitors play slot machines at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dunking Elvis

    An Elvis impersonator performs a slam dunk during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on February 18, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAEGetty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grand casinos

    Lights from passing vehicles are seen in front of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Poker face

    Jamie Gold, right, of California and Paul Wasicka of Colorado go head-to-head on the final table of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Aug. 11, 2006, in Las Vegas. Gold outlasted more than 8,700 other poker players to win the top prize of $12 million. Wasicka won just over $6.1 million for finishing second. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Glitz and glamour

    A Canon display is seen inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show. Las Vegas is the nation's top business travel destination, with easy airline access, numerous hotel rooms, low rates, plentiful convention facilities and a wide range of dining and entertainment options. (Karl Polverino / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Over-the-top entertainment

    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino on June 27, 2006, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A New York minute

    The New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas recreates the Manhattan skyline, complete with replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Entertainment mecca

    Kenny Chesney performs "Out Last Night" at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 5, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tying the knot

    From left, Elvis Presley impersonator Norm Jones plays guitar as Bruce Barnett of Virginia Beach, Va., escorts his daughter Gayle to her wedding ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Graceland is the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas and offers ceremonies with or without Elvis impersonators. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    The $25 million, newly redesigned volcano display in front of the Mirage Hotel & Casino features 150 choreographed FireShooters sending fireballs more than 12 feet in the air and a custom soundtrack created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Mirage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A night on the Strip

    Hotels and casinos line the Las Vegas Strip. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanos to art museums, Las Vegas' many attractions appeal to people of all ages and interests. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fight night

    David Diaz and Manny Pacquiao fight during the fourth round of the WBC Lightweight Championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. Pacquiao won in a ninth-round knockout. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Day at the races

    Rookie driver Shawn Langdon earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career at the NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Richard Wong / NHRA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fabulous shopping

    The Juicy Couture retail store at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is seen before the grand opening February 5, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Juicy Couture) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stunning shows

    Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING Las Vegas. (Joan Marcus / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A slice of Italy

    Visitors take a gondola ride at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Get into the groove

    Dina Buell, left, and Carla Giordano, both from California, dance at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino during Rehab, the resort's weekly pool party, in 2005 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Let’s get this party started

    Party goers gather for the grand opening of LAX Nightclub Las Vegas in 2007. (Chris Weeks / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Big laughs

    Comedian Ellen DeGeneres performs at a taping of ''Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show'' during The Comedy Festival at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A kingly stay

    The Excalibur Hotel and Casino features a castle motif with newly refurbished hotel rooms. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A dancing fountain

    Visitors are silhouetted against the backdrop of The Bellagio's fountain show on the Las Vegas Strip. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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