The `irk’ in Cirque

It could be that I have been burned by the Circus of the Sun.

Now, I fully realize there are worse things to suffer in life than weariness of Cirque du Soleil, the phenomenally successful new-age Canadian circus troupe. And I also realize that to be weary of Cirque means I’ve had the great good fortune to see a whole lot of Cirque shows.

The first Cirque show I saw, Alegria, remains my favorite; a common occurrence, I’ve come to learn, among Cirque fans is that your first time is usually your favorite time.

That initial experience really is magical. It’s the kind of experience you long for in any theatrical endeavor, be it Hamlet or Don Giovanni or Oklahoma! Soaking in the Cirque mystique — the gorgeous, colorful costumes, the rich, worldly music, the mysterious sense that somehow, somewhere the obscure “story” of the show actually makes sense — is tremendously transporting.

I left the Grand Chapiteau (even Cirque’s name for its blue-and-yellow-striped tent has pretensions) that first time thinking I had just seen the most brilliant thing ever.

I don’t usually like clowns, but I liked the clowns in Alegria (among them was Slava, who turned his wondrous bit in that show into an entire, and entirely awful, theatrical experience called Slava’s Snow Show).
And I found the music so intriguing I went out and bought the CD.

Color me a Cirque du Soleil fan circa 1995.

I’ve seen pretty much everything since, including all the permanent Las Vegas shows. Now we have the latest tour, Kooza, making its U.S. debut in San Francisco Friday (Nov. 16), where it continues through Jan. 13 before moving down to San Jose from Jan. 31 through March 2.

The arrival of a new Cirque used to set me all atwitter. Now, from my jaded, seen-it-all perspective, I shrug my shoulders, raise my eyebrows and mutter, “Maybe,” or if I’m feeling French-Canadian, “Peut-etre.”

The last Cirque show to come through the Bay Area, Corteo,” had its moments, but it also had some horrors (one Act 2 clown routine is probably the worst I’ve seen in a Cirque show).

The mega-Cirque shows in Vegas — Ka (the Cirque with an actual plot), Zumanity (the naughty “adult” Cirque), Love (the Beatles Cirque), Mystere (the one with the giant sea snail) and O (the one Cirque that maintains its magical hold year after year) — have a tendency to be mind-numbing simply because they’re so big, so multifaceted and so much the same.

Sure, they all have their themes and gimmicks, their beauty and their thrills. But it’s all essentially ladled from the same Soup du Soleil.

Does anybody really remember what differentiated Varekai from Dralion?

Now that I’ve whined about the pioneer of modern circus, let me share what interests me about Kooza. Two words: David Shiner.

Bay Area audiences know Shiner to be a master clown. Better yet, he’s a master bitter clown — belligerent, aggressive and hard-edged.

We have enjoyed his sour alongside Bill Irwin’s sweet in the brilliant clown show Fool Moon, which played the Geary Theater twice — in 1998 and 2001.

Shiner is the first American writer-director of a Cirque show, and he has said that Kooza, a made-up word inspired by “koza,” Sanskrit for “box, chest or treasure,” goes back to the origins of Cirque — back when Shiner was working on Nouvelle Experience in Cirque’s late ’80s-early ’90s days.

The show, Shiner says, is about “human connection and the world of duality, good and bad. The tone is fun and funny, light and open. The show doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s very much about ideas, too.”

That sounds promising. The emphasis seems to be on acrobatics and clowning and features a stunt called “Wheel of Death.” Hard to resist the lure of potential death at the highbrow circus.

Whatever it takes — I’m ready for the “irk” to be taken out of my Cirque du Soleil attitude.

Kooza continues through Jan. 13 (now extended through Jan. 20) in the tent in the parking lot behind AT&T Park, corner of Third Street and Terry A. Francois Boulevard, San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 4 and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 1 and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $38.50 to $81. Call 866-624-7783 or visit

Vegas query: Broads or Broadway?


Calling Las Vegas the Broadway of the West is really pushing it.

Sure, Mama Mia! has blossomed into a hit, and it looks like Spamalot and The Phantom of the Opera have a chance of success of long runs in the hot desert, but Chicago, Avenue Q and Hairspray didn’t live up to expectations.

The lesson from those shows is that Vegas – like the American public at large – is fickle and can’t always be bothered with something as tiresome as a plot.

Cirque du Soleil has achieved near-religious status in Vegas because it offers up grandiose spectacle that dazzles and overwhelms (almost to a fault), but except for Ka, there are no plots. There are barely even characters.

So what’s a poor little Broadway musical to do in the face of the Cirque juggernaut?

If you’re Spamalot (above), you roll ‘em in the aisles. During my three years in Vegas last week, I saw a lot of empty spectacle, so the stage version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Wynn Las Vegas was like an oasis of authenticity.

There’s nothing authentic about the show, of course. As adapted by Pythoner Eric Idle, it’s pure silliness, but the laughs are real and hearty.

John O’Hurley (best known as J. Peterman on “Seinfeld’’ and as the “Dancing with the Stars’’ champion) plays King Arthur, and he’s every bit as good as Tim Curry was on Broadway. In fact the whole cast, which includes Harry Bouvy, Justin Brill, J. Anthony Crane, Randal Keith, Edward Staudenmayer, Steven Strafford and Nikki Crawford, is fantastic.

This is a 90-minute, intermissionless version of the show, and that’s just fine. Brevity is the soul of comedy, and director Mike Nichols has trimmed the show appropriately.

Crawford’s Lady of the Lake is a showstopper, and her second-half number, “The Diva’s Lament,’’ has had to be re-written because the Knights of the Round Table no longer search for shrubbery. The song also mentions Jennifer Hudson and gets off a quick “And I Am Telling You’’ riff.

Mel Brooks’ The Producers at the Paris Las Vegas also gets its share of honest laughs, though this is a show whose time has come — and gone.

This abbreviated Vegas version loses at least five songs (including “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop,’’ “That Face,’’ “You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night,’’ “Where Did We Go Right?’’ and “Betrayed’’) and doesn’t bother with the Act 2 white washing of the set.

But all the good parts — “Little Old Lady Land’’ with its tap-dancing walkers and, of course, the sublimely silly “Springtime for Hitler’’ – are still present and accounted for. There just seems to be something deflated about the comedy.

Lee Roy Reams (replacing David Hasselhoff) is hamming it up something fierce as Roger DeBris, the worst director in New York, and Bill Nolte is nearly stealing the show as Franz Liebkind, the author of the worst play ever written. Brad Oscar (an original Broadway cast member) is a reliable Max Bialystock and Larry Raben is a worthy Leo Bloom.

The audience seems to have a good time with the show (which even though it feels somewhat empty is still far superior to the lame movie version of the musical), but I was uncomfortable with some of the gay and ethnic humor, like the laughs were more “at’’ than “with.’’

Which brings us to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular, which is the official name of the dead, soulless heap of stagecraft playing at the Venetian.

The $40 million spent to create a Phantom theater and produce a 95-minute version of the 20-year-old show is certainly visible, but when the best part of a show is the crowd of 80 Belgian-made mannequins (above) that sit in the “opera boxes’’ lining the theater, you know there’s a problem.

In trimming the score, Lloyd Webber has done the show a favor. It seems less bloated and self-important now. But the speed of Harold Prince’s new staging turns the show into what it has always threatened to become: a theme park ride.

In the face of Cirque du Soleil’s O and Love, seeing stage smoke and candles come up from under the stage is not that impressive.

The Vegas chandelier begins the show in multiple pieces, and when they fly into place, it looks like the theater is being overrun by UFOs. When the chandelier falls, the effect is truly impressive: it drops at great speed directly down toward the audience. You can actually feel the whoosh of its drop. But that’s the only thrill here.

Broadway veterans Brent Barrett and Anthony Crivello are sharing the role of the Phantom. I saw the Tony Award-winning Crivello, and he made absolutely no impression at all other than a certain proficiency at hitting his marks. The less said about Christine (Elizabeth Loyacano at my performance) and Raoul (Tim Martin Gleason) the better. I’ll just say the beautifully costumed mannequins gave more believable performances.

I feel about Phantom the way I feel about Las Vegas: I hope the last time was the last time.

And now, one last dip into the Vegas waters. Some 25 years ago, Donn Arden, a master of the Vegas spectacular, crafted Jubilee! in the style to which Vegas had become accustomed, which meant topless showgirls, G-stringed showboys, state-of-the-art special effects circa 1981 (Oooh, fire! Oooh, water!) and thousands of glittery, feathery costumes.

Now that’s the kind of Vegas I’m talking about. I loved every super-cheesy, old-school minute of Jubilee! from the opening Ziegfeld-like number to the ridiculous, nearly nude story of “Samson and Delilah.’’ When you fill a glittery stage with 85 performers high stepping to a mostly pre-recorded soundtrack, never mind the nudity: The spirit of 1970s variety shows lives!

But nothing rivals the sinking of the Titanic (following a ridiculous parade of dancing and Bob Mackie costumes that recall a finale from “The Carol Burnett Show’’). After we see the ship sink amid hulking icebergs, the stage goes black. Within seconds, the cast returns, outfitted in red-white-and-blue to sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.’’

The mind fairly reels. From tragedy to patriotism in the blink of a false eyelashed eye.

Today’s Vegas looks like an otherworldly circus and smells like air freshener working overtime to cover up cigarette smoke, greed and desperation. Old Vegas smells like smoke, vice and rhinestones and looks like Jubilee! Now, if only Frank, Sammy and Elvis would return, I might actually think about liking Las Vegas.

So many Cirques


The celebrated Montreal-based circus re-inventors Cirque du Soleil currently has five shows in Vegas (with two more on the way — one, an Elvis-themed show, the other built around magician Criss Angel).

The only Cirque show I missed this trip was Mystere, the first one (at Treasure Island), but I saw it years ago when I said I’d never be back in Vegas.

Mystere is probably the most similar to the touring shows we see here in the Bay Area. It’s a basic Cirque experience, but the company has expanded its horizons with each successive production.

Still the best all-around show is O (above) continues to be a transcendent experience. The theme is water, and the stage is a 1.5 million-gallon pool with the ability to create a dry stage or a pool deep enough for high-divers to make your heart stop when they leap from their lofty perch.

Nearly 10 years old, O is not showing its age at all and is, in fact, the most graceful and transporting show on the Strip.

The other big Cirque show is Love, which opened earlier this year amid great hoopla. Instead of the weird, New Age-y pop music found in most Cirque shows, this one uses a soundtrack by a rock quartet from Liverpool.

If you’re going to break tradition by using recordings instead of a live band, it’s probably a good thing your band is the Beatles.

It’s also a good thing to get original Beatles producer Sir George Martin and his son Gilles to come in with bounteous material from the Beatles vaults and then remaster, remix and just generally fiddle with the original recordings.

The result is a captivating sound montage that incorporates 29 Beatles tunes almost in their entirety along with bits and pieces of dozens more combined with dialogue by John, Paul, George and Ringo from recording sessions, movies and a variety of sources.

The show — at the Mirage, where Siegfried and Roy used to be before Roy was nearly killed by a tiger — has been described by its creators as a visual rock ‘n’ roll poem, and that’s exactly what it is.

Images of the ’60s, both groovy and violent, get a surreal twist as we tumble through the Beatles songbook played through a sound system that has been designed to make us feel like we’re actually inside the songs.

Two speakers in each seat’s headrest combined with a surround-sound speaker in front of each seat create a very personal sound bubble, and it would almost be worth the ticket price ($69-$150) just to sit and listen to the soundtrack in the dark.

But this is more than an incredible aural experience. Even though you’ll probably remember the songs more than the images, creators Guy Laliberte, Dominic Champagne, Gilles Ste-Croix and Chantal Tremblay have outdone themselves crafting a dazzling blend of dancing, video projections and circus acrobatics.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” gets a fairly literal translation, with ladies soaring over the theater (a complete 360-degree space) with strings of lights creating a trippy version of deep space.

“Blackbird” uses the two permanent video screens (attached to the wall) and the four moving screens to project images of white blackbirds against a blue sky.

The best circus stunt — the acts here feel less showy and more like fancy choreography than in other Cirque shows — comes during “Revolution”/“Back in the USSR” as hippies and gas-mask-wearing policemen use trampolines to leap over a giant British phone booth.

For those of us not on drugs, the trippy “Octopus’s Garden” number, complete with outlandish creatures from the fictional deep, sure makes us feel otherworldly.

Equally mind-bending are the two enormous, wraith-like paper puppets that soar through “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

My favorite moment of the show isn’t musical. Shadow figures of the Beatles appear projected on an almost invisible curtain. On the ground at the lads’ feet is the famous Abbey Road crosswalk. The dialogue — patched together from various audio sources — is like a comedy routine from the quartet, ending in the crossing of the street made famous on the “Abbey Road” album cover.

Of course the evening ends with “All You Need Is Love,” and if you need a surefire show in Vegas and have already seen O, all you need is Love.

The most troubled Cirque show in Vegas is Zumanity at the New York-New York hotel and casino. The company was charged with creating an adult show that really pushed the envelope of Vegas shows. So that’s what it delivered, but it was apparently too much. Apparently as many people walked out of the Zumanity as stayed, so changes were made, and it was altered.

Based on what I saw, I’m not sure I’d want to see the really dirty version. This is an enjoyably adult show that, though it has certain Cirque trademarks, is a very different experience.

There’s nudity, foul language, same-sex kissing, pretend S&M, a chaste orgy (complete with two audience volunteers) and two really terrific clowns: Shannan Calcutt and Nicky Dewhurst (above) as a freewheeling couple who do funny things with sex toys, bananas and audience members. Calcutt also does a solo bit involving her bare chest, two plastic bags and a bottle of scotch. I can’t really tell you more, but it’s hilarious, and she’s a treasure.

Cirque’s Ka at the MGM Grand was supposed to be the show that redefined the company. This one had a story (in the folksy, fantasy Lord of the Rings realm) and an extraordinary stage that seemingly existed outside the bounds of gravity.

The show is technically extraordinary, and just being in the theater (beautifully themed to look like an otherworldly oil rig or something equally as mechanical and complex) is exciting.
The story, told without words (except for some ponderous opening narration), is reasonably interesting, though many in the critics’ group found it difficult to follow.

I enjoyed Ka, though I would say it falls behind O and Love and, for sheer entertainment value, even Zumanity, which is sort of perceived to be the unloved Cirque stepchild.

Next post: Broadway West? Reviewing Las Vegas’ Phantom, Spamalot and The Producers, not to mention some well-aged Vegas cheese, Jubilee.

Another Cirque in SF

The big yellow-and-blue-striped tent — the Grand Chapiteau — is heading back to the Bay Area.
Cirque du Soleil’s latest touring show, KOOZA, will have its U.S. premiere Nov. 16 in the parking lot behind San Francisco’s AT&T Park. The show then moves to San Jose Jan. 31.

You can never tell with the quirky Cirque, but this show sounds pretty straightforward — a return to a more traditional circus tradition of acrobats and clowns. The director is David Shiner, a clown well known to Bay Area audiences for his work with Bill Irwin in Fool Moon and for his performance in the early Cirque show Nouvelle Experience.

KOOZA, currently on tour in Canada, centers on a character called The Innocent, a “melancholy loner in search of his place in the world.” Creators promise “bold slapstick humor” as The Innocent encounters The Trickster, The Pickpocket and, most intriguingly, The Bad Dog.

Tickets are $55 to $90 and go on sale to Cirque Club members June 28 and to the rest of us in July.

Visit or call (800) 678-5440.