REVIEW: Alegria (Cirque du Soleil)

Exquisite power and grace brought to an imperfect setting

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Cirque du Soleil presents

Alegría

At Sears Centre Arena
Through March 7 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The magic of the big top is missing, sight lines are mostly flawed and the clowns are not so funny, but Cirque du Soleil’s Alegría is still full of enchantment, a sparking example of this Canadian circus/theater troupe’s best work. The arena staging makes the overall effect seem smaller and less encompassing than Cirque du Soleil under the big top, but still very worthwhile.

Highbars2 First mounted in 1994, Alegría toured for 14 years as a tent production. Last year, the company refitted it as an arena version, allowing short runs like the current one at Sears Center Arena, which ends Sunday.

Surreal and beautiful, the show’s themes trace old worlds vs. new ones and the voyages from one to the next. Dominque Lemieux‘s exquisite, shimmering costumes evoke the court of Louis XV and the explorers and natives of the colonies. There’s no narrative plot, and while the creators saw specific roles for the various colorful "characters" ambling in and around the circus acts, they won’t be obvious to anyone without a program. It doesn’t matter.

The clowns carry much of the story line, such as it is, in a variety of transportation-themed skits. Canadians Aron de Casmaker and Bubkus (Jesse Buck) are the silly ones, playing with a toy horse and paper airplanes; Russian Yuri Medvedev is the sad one, mooning over a suitcase and lost in a snowstorm. Even when they’re funny — as when de Casmaker and Bubkus do an amusing parody of other performers in Act II — the clowning business always goes on too long, especially in relation to the comparatively brief and breathtaking acts that we really came to see.

Among the most astonishing and wonderful bits are; "Power Track," an amazingly beautiful synchronized acrobatic dance, full of tumbling, soaring gymnasts on trampolines; Micah Naruo and Maui Sumeo‘s brilliant Hawaiian fire-knife dance; Russian bars, a petrifying acrobatic act in which the performers jolt into the air and come down onto perilously narrow, flexible boards; Baansansuran Enkhbaatar and Ganchimeg Tumurbaatar, two tiny, graceful contortionists from Mongolia; and, of course, a dazzling high-bar aerialist act.

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All of this comes at hefty prices, plus $15, cash, for parking, but you needn’t — and shouldn’t — get the costliest seats. Sears Centre Arena has few perfect seats for this show. If you get premium seats on the arena floor, you’ll likely have heads blocking your view of the lower parts of the stage. Those seated at the sides may not be able to see rear stage, and views of the aerialists’ high bar act may be obscured by the net. Try to sit in the stands directly across from the stage; you’ll have unobstructed views, but you’ll be a long way from the action — bring opera glasses.

Fortunately, a big part of this show’s power is in its music. Réné Dupéré’s original score rings with majesty and mystery, with multilingual lyrics that add to the exotic flavor of the show.

Backed by Swiss vocalist Malika Alaoui Ismaïli as the Black Singer, and a fine live band — all in white-faced clown makeup and false noses — led by Jean-Philippe Fortin, the splendid voice of French performer Nancy Arnaud (aka Nancy Chiche), as the White Singer, dominates the arena despite a combination of miking and arena acoustics that often makes it seem as if she’s lip-syncing to a recording. (This seems to have led the opening-night audience, sadly, to treat her performance as background music.) There’s a good reason that the "Alegría" soundtrack is Cirque’s bestseller; it was nominated for a Grammy in 1995 and spent 65 weeks on Billboard’s World Music Chart. Arnaud lacks the electrifying, sexy rasp of the original singer, Francesca Gagnon, but brings more sheer power and melodiousness to the songs.

The vibrant, haunting, namesake song of the finale, "Alegría," Spanish for "jubilation," will stay with you.

 

Rating: ★★★½

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NOTE: This YouTube video portrays the Aerial High Bar Act as staged and performed in Cirque du Soleil’s tent-version of Alegria.