Review: Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9 (at Navy Pier)

A thrilling summer show for the entire family

 

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Cirque Shangha
i and Navy Pier present
  
Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9
  
Directed by Miao Miao Chen
at the Skyline Stage, Navy Pier (map)
thru September 6th  |  tickets: $12-$29  |  more info

reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Never mind the official calendar. If Cirque Shanghai is in residence on Navy Pier, it must be summer in the city. In residence under the armadillo-shaped tent that is the Pier’s Skyline Stage, the Chinese import is back with its roster of spectacular  human oddities and jaw-dropping feats of strength, balance and grace. Think Cirque du Soleil, minus the artsy existential clowning and plus motorcycle stunt drivers. That’s the general aesthetic that informs Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9.

Cirque-Shanghai-Cloud-Nine001 The new show brings new acts to the stage, chief among them those motorcycles. During the kinetic Imperial Thunder, a quartet of roaring bikes and their color-coordinated riders zip around like bees inside of a metal dome that you’d swear wasn’t large enough to accommodate even one rider let alone four. Inside the Imperial Thunder dome, the riders make it look easy, flying over and around each other in a display of centrifugal force and precision racing that’s a genuine jaw-dropper. On the other end of the spectrum? The contemplative Thousand Hand Guan Yin,  a golden-tinged illustration of a goddess with – yes – a thousand hands.

Those two acts illustrate the extremes of Cloud 9, the creation of Sylvia Hase with director Miao Miao Chen and Chicago-based choreographer Brenda Didier.  Whichever performance style you prefer – ear-drum rattling roars and performers in full-body whirl at break-neck pace or new-agey strings serenely accompanying hand-dancers creating illusions with the most delicate movements of their fingertips – Cirque Shanghai delivers plenty of it.

Performed by a troupe of elite circus performers aged 15 to 25, the show is pure eye candy. There’s no subtext to contortionism, nothing to deconstruct in a display of hat juggling. That’s absolutely fine. Cloud 9 is a seasonally appropriate wonder, entertainment that screams “leave your thinking caps at home, school’s out for the summer!”

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That’s not to say that the 18 acts within the production are anything less than top tier. Try not to ooh and aah at the Suspended Pole Acrobats as they leap, two stories up, between perilously swaying stalks. Ditto the gleefully silly  Bicycle Platform Balance, where in nine grinning cyclists form a pedaling human pyramid atop a single bicycle. There are also strong men, hoop divers and aerial artists whose skill spinning on silks evokes acrobatic spiders flying between web strands.

The look of the production is as marvelously over-the-top as the acts. Think Liberace meets Bob Mackie meets a Bedazzler set on stun and you get a sense of the show’s visual appeal. Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9 might not ponder the depths of the human condition, but for pure fun, it’s tough to beat.

      
     
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

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REVIEW: Dreamgirls (Broadway in Chicago)

Talented Cast Shimmers and Shines

 

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Broadway in Chicago presents:

 

Dreamgirls

 

Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by
Henry Krieger
Directed and Choreographed by
Robert Longbottom
thru January 31st (ticket info)

By Keith Ecker 

dreamgirls4 If there is one thing the stage production of Dreamgirls will always have over the film, it is the sequins. Video cannot convey the absolute beauty of the costumes that adorn the actresses, costumes that appear just as glittery as Bob Mackie’s most flamboyant creations. William Ivey Long gets a hat tip for costume design, which comes as no surprise considering the man is a veteran of Broadway. He’s won five of the 11 Tony nominations he’s received and is an inductee in the Theatre Hall of Fame, a hall that I am sure is just as glamorous as Long’s aesthetic sensibility.

Of course, Dreamgirls is more than just elegant gowns and flared pants—it’s about the singing. And this show, produced by Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, definitely delivers. These actors can wail. From guttural growls that convey the rawest of emotions to controlled, sustained tones that capture the world-weariness of the characters, the Dreamgirls cast sports an impressive set of pipes.

The play is a fictional tale based on the true tribulations of such early R&B acts as the Supremes. At the opening, three female singers from Chicago, known as the Dreamettes, hope to get their big break at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York. Effie (Moya Angela) is the full-figured lead with an Aretha Franklin-like strength to her voice. Her friends Deena (Syesha Mercado) and Lorrell (Adrienne Warren) serve as her back up. Effie’s brother C.C. (Trevon Davis) writes all their music. The group doesn’t make the cut at the Apollo, but thanks to their newfound manager, Curtis (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), they get a 10-week touring gig backing up-and-comer Jimmy Early (Chester Gregory). Effie doesn’t take well to the idea of being second banana, but she goes along for the good of the group.

Curtis eventually spins the Dreamettes off into their own act, now known as the “Dreams”. Despite having a romantic relationship with Effie, he bumps her from lead for the more camera-friendly Deena, who Curtis then begins courting. Becoming increasingly agitated and unpredictable, Effie is replaced, leading to the musical’s famous torch song “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”

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The Dreams wrestle with fame, Curtis continues his greed-induced destructive path and Effie must find herself after being forced to realize she is not the center of the universe. And did I mention the sequins?

Angela as Effie is brilliant. Her rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” is a showstopper. As she staggers, sways and belts out the tune during the complete and utter breakdown of Effie’s ego, your gut is as wrenched as your ears are pleasured.

Equally impressive is Gregory’s portrayal of Jimmy Early. The role is incredibly demanding, requiring superb vocal control, an impeccable sense of soul, physical endurance and strength and precise comedic timing. Gregory nails it, juggling all these attributes at once. A perfect example of this display of multi-talent takes place during the number “The Rap,” where Jimmy throws off all restraints and reclaims his sense of soul. For those unfamiliar with the play, I’d rather not spoil the scene, but I will say there’s ample dipping.

The set design is minimal, providing an open space for lots of jumping, jiving and sashaying. Most of the set is composed of five very tall video screens, which are used to full effect. At one point, a camera cleverly positioned above the stage displays a Busby Berkeley-style chorus number as if the performers were a cluster of synchronized swimmers.

There were a few sound issues. During the first act, mics were set too low and sometimes cut out. There was also a technical gaff during the reprise of “Cadillac Car.” But such issues aren’t likely to recur.

Beautiful both visually and aurally, Broadway in Chicago’s production of Dreamgirls is sure to please both the casual theatergoer and the diehard musical fanatic.

Rating: ★★★★

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