By JOHN DeMERS
Cirque du Soleil is back in town. And thanks to the company’s new, quick-tour arena format, it’ll be gone practically before the famed old blue-and-yellow tent would have even been set up.
I am one of the many Cirque fans who first saw these magical and definitely mysterious shows when the Montreal-based company would settle in somewhere for weeks, giving shows night after night beneath what it taught us was le Grand Chapiteau. The bizarre mix of traditional circus acts with street theater and more than a little avant-garde fantasy was intoxicating. It had the same sense of childlike wonder delivered by such early Spielberg favorites as E.T. and, played in a different key, Close Encounters. Except that in Cirque founder Guy Lalabirte’s world view, the “extra-terrestrials” were the men, women and animals we took for granted all around us every day.
Now, Cirque du Soleil is a big deal – and, by all evidence, big deals don’t do street theater anymore, least of all the impromptu, pass-the-hat kind that gives the genre its energy. Cirque does shows bigtime in Las Vegas, such as Love devoted to the Beatles songbook and an upcoming production built on the music of Michael Jackson. As slick and expensive as such Vegas productions may be (the Michael Jackson is already being advertised for 2012 at the Toyota Center, alongside Lady Gaga in April), there are those of us who miss the old days. A lot.
The current production of Alegria, running at Toyota through Sunday, is a bit of a happy medium. For one thing, it’s one of Cirque’s most popular shows, having been seen by more than 10 million people around the world since its debut in Montreal in 1994. For another, it travels with arguably the most beloved score, its cast album of jazz, pop, tango and klezmer being the No. 1 seller among the Cirque collection at more than 500,000 copies sold. And many locals know most of this stuff already, since Alegria played here in 2003.
To those who remember the classic Cirque du Soleil, something is undeniably lost playing an arena, even one shared with the Rockets and Lady Gaga. Things simply become more “normal,” and in Cirque terms, that’s a very bad thing. The current raked stage starts in the back, in the shadows, just like any stage, and it tilts forward toward the expensive seats downfront. Just like any theater. In le Grand Chapiteau, all dimensions and directions were thrown off, making a performance resemble more of a happy mob scene from some century that probably never existed.
Alegria itself delivers everything we know to expect from Cirque, before it became as derivative and celeb-driven as Broadway. There’s the title that evokes joy and a fast pace, as in the musical signature “Allegro.” There’s the music with lyrics in a dozen languages or none, sounding like a blend of French, Italian, Greek and what I’m always forced to call “Albanian.” There are the marvelous circus acts, based on traditional skill sets from Europe and Asia, but always driven to new heights by extra speed, costumes and lighting. And of course, there are the clowns.
You can’t have a circus without clowns, and from the casual Disney-style “pre-show” forward, the clowns in Alegria deliver laughs that fill the Toyota Center, delighting young and old with nearly equal success. One little boy a few seats down barely stopped to catch his breath all night as a matched pair of tall and short funny men channeled Laurel and Hardy by way of Punch and Judy – all in that squeaky, honky, squealy magical language that Cirque du Soleil has come to call its own.