Cirque du Soleil has swooped back into New York in its second attempt to mount a successful semi-permanent show—Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall. After the financial and critical disaster that was last year’s Banana Shpeel at the Beacon Theater, the new spectacle, which opened Wednesday night, shows signs of many lessons learned.
Banana Shpeel spun a ridiculous “who cares?” tale of a grouchy circus ringleader who’s had a bee in his bonnet for decades because of a past romance gone sour. The irritating plot left little stage time for the incredible contortionists, jugglers, and hand balancers that the audience had paid money to see. In Zarkana, a magician named Zark (get where the title comes from?) has lost his love and his magical powers. (Dude, bummer.) He spends the show lamenting about it in dramatic, rock-opera numbers, but leaves the stage for significant chunks of time, allowing the amazing soldiers of Cirque to do their thing. Less story, yes; but I could have done without Zark and his sad-sack story completely. Why does Cirque du Soleil feel so compelled to add narrative to their New York shows? Is it the presence of Broadway that makes them feel they need to compete? Broadway shows and Cirque-du-Soleil eye orgasms are apples and oranges. Cirque, leave the storytelling to Sondheim—show us the wow.
And Zarkana does deliver on the wow factor. The show kicks off with a perfect appetizer—a juggling act, which is small enough in scale, but kicks into a whirlwind of high-speed coordination that was enough to make my palms sweat. Next up is a gorgeous and romantic aerial duet, in which the male and female performers fly around the expansive stage entangled in a hanging rope. The rest of Act I includes some fun tightrope walkers, but doesn’t astonish. The true breathtaking moments of Zarkana are saved for the second act.
Act II opens not with a stunner of physical feats, which is expected of a Cirque show, but rather one of artistry. Working in a medium I never knew existed, a woman draws intricate images in a basin filled with blue sand; an overhead camera projects her gorgeous work on a screen. From there, the elaborate acrobatic set is revealed, which encompasses the entire air space of the Radio City stage. During a sneak peak for the press in late May, the acrobats missed four of their catches; however, the proceeding weeks of previews seemed to be just what the performers needed to sharpen their routine. On opening night, there were no falls and the stunts elicited delighted gasps from the audience. By far the best act of the night is dubbed “Wheel of Death,” which features two men, each fighting to escape the confines of a torture machine that’s a cross between a windmill and a hamster wheel. The effect is of a chase scene from an action movie, occurring live.
The performers aren’t the only visual candy on the Zarkana stage. Stephane Roy’s set is an eerily beautiful castle dungeon with tiled walls and an ornately framed proscenium. The score by Nick Littlemore is an aural treat, but only half the work. The orchestrations are grand, lush, and dark in tone, but the lyrics sung by Zark (played by Canadian pop star Garou, with appealing rock-star edge) might as well fall upon deaf ears. The lyrics are largely unintelligible, and from what I could make out, were painfully literal.
Zarkana bests Banana Shpeel by leaps and bounds. Yet while entertaining, the show falls short of astonishing as a whole piece. Francois Girard’s direction often leaves the stage crowded and without a focal point. The killer acts seem stop and go, largely due to intervals of two clowns that attempt to distract the audience in front of the curtain. Yes, I know they are most likely needed while the next scene is being set into place, but it’s nonetheless a tedious transition. Ultimately with this new show, Cirque du Soleil is well on its way to repairing its New York reputation.