Review: Cirque Shanghai – Bright Spirit

Disparate acts gracefully knitted together create a lovely distraction. 

 

Cirque Shanghai: Bright Spirit
Navy Pier, running through September 7th. (buy tickets here)

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

The outfits evoke a Bedazzler-run-amok in Siegfried and Roy’s costume shop. The lighting is pure glitter gulch. And the acts? Picture Liberace’s long-lost Shanghai-born twin falling into a giant sloshing bucket of Cirque de Soleil and emerging with a show for audiences more accustomed to Vegas-style MTV smash cuts than the studied elegance of those artsy-fartsy French Canadians.

Cirque Shanghai_379 This is the wonderful world of Cirque Shanghai: Bright Spirit (buy tickets here), running in the Armadillo – whoops, the Skyline Stage – on Navy Pier through September 7th. The 90-minute production is a variety show on steroids – but if steroids were a good thing. Which is to say, Bright Spirit is a hopped up, mega-amplified celebration of some of the most garishly useless and entertaining skills around: Hoop divers, plate spinners, chair climbers (!), hat jugglers (!!) and unitard-clad creatures in inner tubes bouncing and rolling in ways that seem to defy more than a few fundamental laws of physics. For summer time guilty pleasures, Bright Spirit is up there with State Fair Fried Twinkies and snickering Oak Street beach’s endless preening spandex parade.

Directed by Naperville-native Dwight Jordan and choreographed by Lincolnshire native Brenda Didier, Bright Spirit – like all the Cirque Shanghai productions – is the brain child of Mike Wilson. The son of travelling magicians, Wilson followed his parents throughout China as a child, picking up a lifelong fascination with Chinese acrobatics, dance and folklore along the way. In 1990, he started bringing Chinese performers to the U.S., envisioning a sort of cross-cultural pollination between traditional Chinese art forms and high-tech Western production values. Almost 20 years later, Cirque Shanghai is the elaborate culmination of that vision. And in Navy Pier – a venue where one can find just about everything but beat baiting (though there’s lots of cotton candy for just such a purpose) – Wilson has a venue that perfectly complements Cirque Shanghai’s hybrid of populist thrill-o-rama stunts and ancient Eastern art forms.

Cirque Shanghai - Bright Spirit, now playing at Navy Pier through September 7th.

Now in its fourth season on the Pier, Cirque Shanghai has been polished and tweaked since it initially arrived, but the core showstoppers remain intact, a splendid display of spectacularly worthless skills resplendently presented.

Plate spinners turn the stage into a dizzying, dazzling pond filled with hundreds of rapidly orbiting lily pads set twirling by elite-level gymnasts. In an inexplicable (yet laugh-out-loud amusing) non-sequitor of sorts, a giant day-glo caterpillar that looks for all the world like an outtake from “James and the Giant Peach” makes his undulating way across the stage toward the dinnerware finale.

Cirque Shanghai, now playing at Navy Pier, runs through September 7th Also nifty: The Russian barre, wherein acrobats make the likes of Nastia Luikin look like a piker as they flip and whirl on a balance beam that seems to be made out of a giant foam noodle.

We’ve long fancied ourselves a connoisseur of contortionists, and the seemingly boneless wonders here do not disappoint offering a gallery of body positions that, when one stops to think about it, are simply not possible.

And only at Cirque Shanghai can you catch the “bumble bee diabolo” – wherein manically smiling young ladies propel a cross between nunchucks, windmill propellers and giant yoyos in an act that perfectly captures the timeless sentiment “you’re gonna put somebody’s eye out with that thing.”

With such disparate acts gracefully knitted together by Didier’s apt choreography, Bright Spirit is a lovely distraction. Save the Serious Art for fall. Now is the summer of our deep content with the likes of plate spinners.

Rating: ««½

‘CIRQUE SHANGHAI: GOLD’
When: Through Sept. 1 (12 shows a week, including most afternoons)
Where: Pepsi Skyline Stage, Navy Pier
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $14.50-$29.50 at 312-902-1500

View Cirque Shanghai - Bright Spirit

Various “Cirque” Reviews:

  • Chicago Tribune’s review. (“Cirque Shanghai leaves crowd cheering)
  • Sun-Times’ review. (…modestly-staged acrobatics are generally neat.)
  • BroadwayWorld.com’s review. (…a soaring celebration of life appearing only in Chicago)

CirqueShanghai

See the entire Cirque Shanghai photo album here.

Opening This Week in Chicago

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Reviews: "Kooza" and "Cirque Shanghai"

Run Away and Join The Cirques!!

By Venus Zarris

I remember my first visit to the Ringling Brother’s circus at the International Amphitheater when I was a small child. Three rings of amazing delights and exotic animals were almost more than I could handle. Even in the ‘nose bleed’ seats the impact left a permanent impression. I was overwhelmed by the spectacle of it and have been a circus fan ever since.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily set the American standard for circus extravaganzas but since then there have been some wonderful imports that have broke the mold by reinventing the experience.

As if summer in Chicago isn’t already filled with wonderful opportunities for theatrical fun, there are currently TWO world-class circus options that are sure to thrill and amaze. Although vastly different experiences, both are equally entertaining. KOOZA – Cirque du Soleil is on the high end of production values as well as ticket price. $55-$125 per ticket may seem steep but the payoff is over 2 ½ hours of spellbinding bliss. There is a reason why Cirque du Soleil has a devoted fan base. They truly create another world, thereby making the escape from reality an absolute immersion into fantasy, before the first trick is even performed.

Cirque Shanghai: Gold, on the other hand, is lighter on production values and fantastical concept but more than makes up for this with 1 ½ hour of non-stop amazing acrobatic excellence. It possesses a beautiful charm that comes not from fabricated artifice but rather from a surprisingly heartwarming connection between the audience and the brilliant performers. At $14.50-$29.50 a ticket, it is also more family friendly as well as wallet friendly, especially during the current economic crunch.

There is something unparalleled about seeing both of these unique productions live. “Death Defying Acts” is just a circus catchphrase until you witness the dangers and dares first hand. There is nothing supernatural, but there is genuine magic created by all of these performers who have devoted their lives to becoming the best in their fields. Both Cirques are sure to rank as highlights of the summer as well as provide memories for years to come.

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KOOZA – Cirque du Soleil

The spectacle is nothing short of a spellbinding, jaw dropping, eye popping, sensational, magical and death defying sensory overload. This may sound like a bag of clichéd descriptive exaggerations, when in fact they are actually understatements compared to the otherworldly delights that await you under the big blue and yellow striped tent.

Kooza2 As you walk in you are struck by the sheer magnitude of technical engineering contraptions that are implemented to execute such a grand transformation in a parking lot. The pre-show antics of the small clown troupe warm up the crowd. Normally circus clowns fall in between the range of corny to creepy but these jokers are actually hilarious.

When the show officially starts you are in for 2 ½ hours of mind boggling visceral fireworks. Between the costumes, lighting design, production design, thrilling music delivered through an acoustically perfect sound system, and best-in-their-field world class performers; ‘KOOZA’ quite simply delivers the most whimsically lavish and lovely production values. The occasional ‘jazz hands’ tossed into the playful choreography made me imagine that Bob Fosse would have adored the flawless showmanship.

'Kooza' - now playing at the United Center through September

The opening sequence starts out simple with an ‘innocent’ flying a kite. There is a lovely connection to the sweet little person but when he receives a special delivery life sized jack-in-the-box and the ‘trickster’ appears all bets are off. The stage fills with color, life and sound. As the ornate three story orchestra tower is revealed there is a flashback to Japanese animator Miyazaki’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’. This sets the stage for an experience that actually makes the surreal visual extremes of Japanese animation seem commonplace.

Kooza8 Every act thrills, amazes and delights. ‘KOOZA’ takes personal offense to gravity, as there are several gasp inducing aerial acts. The stage is almost underused for the volume of overhead amazements but the beautiful grounded triplets of synchronized shiny contortion almost steal the show. Their flexibility is hard to describe as human and at times almost sickeningly unnatural. One maneuver resembles the deleted ‘spider scene’ from the ‘Exorcist.’

Demons, angels and everything in between captivate beyond your wildest dreams. It is hard to imagine that two men perilously spinning on a giant double wheel of death can be followed by anything, much less a pickpocket, but the acts flow brilliantly. Your nerves are given occasional breaks from the more dangerous exhibits but the thrills are constant. Cirque du Soleil’s KOOZA is an explosion of miracles that should not be missed!

Rating: ««««

(“KOOZA – Cirque du Soleilruns through August 24 at the Grand Chapiteau, United Center parking lot K, 1901 W. Madison Street. 800-678-5440)

Kooza7 Kooza9

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Cirque Shanghai: Gold

Among the many amazing achievements of this foray into exotic entertainment, Cirque Shanghai: Gold illustrated a cultural difference that I had heretofore not realized. Other than a vehicle for serving food, in China, plates can be spun on the end of sticks by flexible acrobats to create dazzling visual tricks. Whereas in Greece, we get drunk, toss them on the ground and yell, ‘Opa!’

cirqueshanghai1 If you are tired of the day-to-day grind, uninspired by the offerings of summertime blockbusters or simply want to escape into the world of something unusually magical, Cirque Shanghai: Gold should not be missed! We left the show with an adrenaline rush that made us literally feel like five-year-old children. Chocked full of moments that range from ‘DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!,’ to ‘NO WAY!,’ to ‘HOLY SHIT!,’ you cannot help but be astonished and overwhelmed by these award wining international athletic superstars.

Now, I realize that ‘Superstar’ is a word that gets thrown around quite freely in this country, but forget TV’s ‘Celebrity Circus.’ These miraculous performers are the real deal! And despite their otherworldly abilities to seemingly defy the laws of gravity and physics, these charming gymnastic geniuses perform their feats of daring acrobatic accomplishment without the slightest air of pretense or bravado. As a matter of fact, you can’t help but fall in love with their contagious warmth and humble enthusiasm. I found myself wanting to throw a party for the entire lovable cast so I could shower them with prizes and affection.

Just when you think that they can’t possibly out due the astounding act you witnessed, your jaw drops at the following flabbergaster. The flexibility alone elicits profound feelings of personal inadequacy as they do things that a normal body could only duplicate during a lethal fall down several flights of stairs!

cirqueshanghai2 As if the talent on stage isn’t enough, the exceptionally creative team behind the scenes is outstanding. Director Sylvia Hase hails from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Emmy Award-winner Steve Base provides the conceptual design. Choreographer Brenda Didier and lighting/scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, both Chicago based award-winners, round off the visionary team.

But the beautifully brilliant costumes, lighting, music and dancing pale next to these genuinely gifted performers who not only entertain beyond your wildest dreams but also serve as incomparable ambassadors of international good will. I hope that their stay in Chicago returns to them at least some of the joy that they offer everyone who watches this wonderful all-ages treat! The acrobats explode with dazzling talent making ‘Cirque Shanghai: Gold’ a spectacular display of human fireworks and 90 minutes of sheer delight!

Rating: ««««

(“Cirque Shanghai: Gold” runs through Sept. 1 at The Skyline Stage on Navy Pier. 312-902-1500)

CirqueShanghai

For WGN Radio – My summer picks…

Chicago - My Kind of Theater Town - cropped

For Kids and Families:

  • Lyle, Lyle, the Crocodile, Lifeline Theatre
    • June 13th -July 13th; Friday-Sunday at 1pm
    • Tickets: $10
  • Cirque Shanghai: Gold ; Navy Pier outdoor theater
    • Runs all summer through Sept. 1st
    • Performed at outdoor theater at Navy Pier (just east of Ferris Wheel), so take in the show, then experience the huge fireworks display every Wednesday and Saturday evening.
    • Tickets: $12.50-$30
  • Willy Wonka, Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier
    • July 8th – August 17th
    • Tickets: $18-$23
  • Blue Man Group, Briar Street Theatre
    • Super-fun for kids of all ages
    • Tickets: $49-$59 (box office: 773-348-4000)

For Teens (and the young-at-heart):

  • Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, Neo-Futurists
    • Experience Chicago’s longest running play – 20 years and counting!
    • Days/Times: Friday-Saturday, 11pm, Sunday 7pm
    • Price: $6 plus the roll of a dice (so $7-$12 – is that cool or what?!?)
  • That’s Weird Grandma, Barrel of Monkeys
    • Monday nights, 8pm
    • Adults: $9 // Kids: $4

Broadway In Chicago (the big downtown shows):

  • Wicked, Ford Center for the Performing Arts (Oriental Theatre)
    • After 4 super-successful years,Wicked, has announced that it will officially close in January 2009.  So catch it while you can!
    • Ticket Price: $30-$95 (Box Office: 312-902-1400)
  • Jersey Boys, Bank of America Theatre (formerly Schubert Theatre)
    • Open run
    • Ticket Price: $30-$95 (Box Office: 312-902-1400)
  • Shout!, Drury Lane Watertower
    • Through July 20th  
    • Tickets: $45-$55 (Box Office: 312-902-1400)

For Date Night:

My two-pennies worth:

You haven’t experienced Chicago until you’ve ventured north to The Heartland Cafe in East Rogers Park.  First opened in the 1970’s, this earthy restaurant and bar jettisons you back to the late 1960’s and early 70’s (in a granola and incense kind-of-way).  The musical review, Lonesome Losers of the Night, is performed in an intimate coffee house down the street from Heartland, so first grab a bite to eat at Heartland, walk down the block to the performance, then mosey back down to The Heartland for drinks and nightly live music.

 

Comedy

  • Campaign Super Nova: or How Many Democrats Does It Take To Lose An Election?
    • Second City’s newest review
    • Open run, tickets: $19-$25 (Box Office: 312-337-3992)
  • Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Steppenwolf Theatre
    • runs through July 27
    • Tickets: $20-$68 (Box Office: 312-335-1650)
  • Co-Ed Prison Sluts, Annoyance Theatre
    • Annoyance Theatre brings back their raunchy long-running hit of the 80’s and 90’s.
    • Runs July 4th – August 29th
    • Tickets: $15 (Box Office: 773-561-4665)
  • Comedy Sportz – Comedy Sportz Theatre, Belmont and Clark
    • audience-interactive comedy competition between two teams of improv comedians, who perform a series of scenes and songs, all based on suggestions from the audience
    • Open run, now in their 21st year
    • Ticket prices vary, (Box Office: 773-549-8080)

Drama

  • A Steady Rain, Royal George Theatre
    • extended through Oct 5 (then on to Broadway?)
    • Tickets: $50 (box office: 312-988-9000)
  • Taste of Honey, Shattered Globe Theatre Ensemble
    • runs through July 5th
    • Tickets: $15-$35, (box office: 773-871-3000)
  • Hizzoner, Prop Thtr (performed at Beverly Arts Center)
    • Running for over 2-years, this play eerily depicts the infamous Mayor Richard J. Daley and inner-workings of “The Machine”
    • runs through July 29th
    • tickets: $40

Musicals:

  • Fiorello, Timeline Theatre 
    • runs through July 20th
    • Tickets: $15-$30 (Box Office: 773-281-8463)
  • Ain’t Misbehavin’, Goodman Theatre
    • running June 21st – July 27th
    • Tickets: not yet announced (Box Office: 312-443-3800)
  • Jekyll & Hyde, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble
    • through July 20th
    • Tickets: $20-$27 (Box Office: 773-327-5252)
  • Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bailiwick Repertory
    • composed by Dennis DeYoung of the band “Styx
    • runs through July 6t
    • Tickets: $25-$45 (Box Office: 773-883-1090)
  • Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace
    • runs through July 27th
    • tickets: $28-$33