I don’t mean to be a Grinch, but … a standing ovation for “Cirque Dreams Holidaze”? That was the scene on opening night at the Saroyan Theatre. I offer a minority viewpoint: In terms of warranting that kind of enthusiasm, this nog was a few eggs short.
Yes, I admit there were some impressive contortions of human bodies going on in this glittery national tour, along with a lineup of appealing aerial trapeze performances. And, yes, I thoroughly enjoyed several wonderful acts (including a quick-change costume routine that left me gaping and a deft and low-key “reverse juggling” experience that involved bouncing balls off the floor instead of throwing them in the air). But, overall, this show is sort of weird and even a little creepy, culminating in perhaps the most bizarre setting of the song “O Holy Night” that I’ve ever encountered. (The production continues Wednesday for one more performance.) Here’s my categorical rundown:
The format: No narrative to speak of, but “Cirque Dreams Holidaze” is a lineup of circus acts by international performers — some Yuletide-oriented, some not — presented on a stage crammed with Christmas decorations and accompanied by three singers belting out holiday classics and some original songs.
The aesthetic: The gaudier, the better. Take, for example, the garb worn by the effusively costumed singers. One of the women sports a clunky green hat that looks like a cross between a Christmas tree beehive ‘do and a Roman gladiator helmet. The other woman wears a shimmering white, puffy and askew gown that suggests a wedding dress on a bender. The man is sporting so many shiny layers and holiday accoutrements that it’s as if someone poured glue on him, then rolled him around the bottom of that much-used tinsel/ornaments/wrapping paper box you’ve been meaning to clean out for the past couple of Decembers. With its mix of campy excess and a hint of the macabre — what were those scary looking snowflakes doing marching grimly through the tableaux at the end of the first act, and why, oh why, did someone just dance by with a headless mannequin? — the show can’t get a handle on the tone it’s striving for. As my friend Stephanie told me at intermission: “I can’t decide if it’s an acid-trip Christmas, a Tim Burton Christmas, or just really bad fashion choices.”
The acts: My favorites were the “Fashionistas” (Ilia Ryzhkov and Natalia Khazina, both from Russia), who did a series of spectacularly quick costume changes in a magic-act routine that still has me baffled; and the “Juggler” (Melaku Lissanu of Ethiopia), whose “Bounce” was unlike quite anything I’d ever seen. Plus, the “Snow Princess” (Liudmila Dovgan of Russia) contorted her body into a giant martini glass in a way that’ll have you gulping olives. (Anyone who can put her head below her feet deserves accolades from the approximately 7.6 billion less-limber humans sharing the planet with her.)
The choreography: Here’s where we get to the true weakness of the show. These fine and talented circus performers are asked to also fill in as ensemble members, and they’re constantly parading across the stage in choreographed bits while the main acts are going on. Rather than just letting the audience fix on the main attraction, director Neil Goldberg keeps up a fussy, nearly constant stream of distractions. (Why the spinning plates routine?) The problem is that the ensemble members aren’t necessarily dancers, and their plodding movements on stage seem almost grim. Example: the twin “Party Tricksters” (Andrii Pysiura and Mykola Pysiura of the Ukraine), dressed up Mad-Hatter style, dutifully go through their assigned choreography, but it feels awkward, stilted and even a little tense. It isn’t until the second act that we see what they bring to the table: a sibling gymnastics routine. Solution: stop making your circus performers members of the chorus in between their acts, or hire a professional ensemble.
The costumes: I mentioned a creepy sensibility, and the costumes are the main offenders. At one point, an ensemble member wearing a man-in-the-moon mask pops up looking like that Mac Tonight character with sunglasses — and then he’s gone. Why was he there? Other costumes feel misguided from the go: One of the solo aerial performers is wearing a nude-color body suit haphazardly affixed with strips of colored fabric. But the fabric is so sparse it gives him a ragged look, like a mangy lion. I’m all for strangeness — I sort of liked the Slinkee-like springs that shimmied across the stage, reminding me of some simple-celled creature you’d see in a biology textbook — but too often in this show, the costume design comes across as puzzling non-sequiturs.
The “Holy” moment: And then there’s the rendition of “O Holy Night,” which is accompanied by a shirtless aerialist and his briskly clad partner, who swoop around on fabric ribbons as cut-out stars descend from the sky. Maybe it’s just me, but intoning “Oh night, when Christ was born” while a couple doing aerial ballet put their bodies together in new and unusual combinations just seems to be an odd creative choice. For me, the moment is truly what put the “Daze” in this holiday show. Then again, who wants to hear from a Grinch?
“Cirque Dreams Holidaze,” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 20, Saroyan Theatre. Tickets are $29-$69.
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