Cirque Dreams Illumination: A Review

24 Feb

Hobby Center through March 7 

By JOHN DeMERS 

Somebody really should determine, once and for all, how many people buying tickets to this show think it’s the newest spectacle from Cirque du Soleil. 

No, I’m not making a trademark claim, since any such issues would have been settled among high-priced lawyers millions and millions of audience members ago. And besides, the word “Cirque” refers technically to the grand circus traditions of Europe and Asia, from which both brands of shows draw so unabashedly, so lovingly and proudly. It’s simply interesting to ponder the tag-along effect of waving a flag routinely confused with one of the most beloved brands in modern entertainment. And that confusion is certainly no accident.

Still, the show that opened last night at the Hobby Center (a far cry from Cirque du Soleil’s old, pre-Vegas habit of traveling the world with its own fantastical blue-and-yellow big top) is, while much smaller in size and vision, filled to the brim with flourishes that surprise and delight. That it absolutely does share with its more famous non-cousin: the ability to make you catch your breath, to force out that quick but happy “oooh” that many haven’t expressed so openly since childhood. The performers gathered here, while given annoyingly nondescript titles like “perch aerialist” or “wire walker” in the program, are good enough to take center stage in any circus or other “greatest show on earth.”

Within that fact lurks Cirque Dreams’ single greatest question. Why does its creator, Neil Goldberg (a veteran of Super Bowls, the NBA, Disney, Busch Gardens, Six Flags and Branson, and it shows)… why does he serve up extraordinary feats of individual balance and strength, and then distract all eyes from them with a ridiculous array of other characters, movements and sounds? Goldberg at times seems to defy us to focus on what matters, and not in a pleasant way, as though he figures the audience is made up entirely of children with the latest attention disorder. Again and again, a super-dramatic act high above the stage is surrounded by people walking, strolling and dancing, plus a never-ending series of whimsical cutouts that seem to scurry meaninglessly between the wings. Because they can.

This show’s most telling act of product differentiation is ceding to Soleil the land of magic, mystery and illusion – and this, oddly, despite the emphasis on “Dreams” in its name. In the Soleil sense, there are no dreams on this stage – no characters who seem human, animal or some combination of both, singing odd folk songs in a language that combines words from many, no ragtag band of gypsy musicians pumping, banging and tooting on instruments borrowed from Dr. Seuss, and no circus acts lifted so far above their ancient European skill sets it becomes a sport to identify them within each dazzling moment of fantasy. Cirque Dreams is not a dream but a show, an extremely American musical-theater show, full of singing and dancing, and fairly typical versions of each. At worst, it’s a Broadway revue you never heard of, set in some colorful American inner city and put on by better-than-average street performers working for tips. 

And work they do. Once you stop longing for magic and illusion, and especially once you stop waiting for the capably bluesy African-American singer playing a TV news reporter to sing a song that’s actually any good, you sit back and enjoy. Highlights include the wonderful wire walker who kicks things off (stepping, sliding and even flipping his body along a wire that’s not a tight rope at all), the Asian miracle workers who spin in and around hanging cubes, the juggler who creates Stomp-like percussion banging dozens of whirring balls off a weird drum-keyboard, and the perch balancer and his gravity-defying aerialist.

Martin Lamberti is one of the few performers who make us look up their names, for his hilarious miming as a movie director making a silent film with our own audience members as stars. Except that of course, this being Cirque Dreams – the show that isn’t Cirque du Soleil – you leave guessing that those folks weren’t really members of the audience either.

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