June 28, 2008

City Life for Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy

My very first exposure to Broadway came from watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” every Sunday night when I was a kid. Scenes from musicals like Oklahoma and My Fair Lady often followed jugglers twirling plates on poles or ran right before comics wearing baggy pants or funny little hats. There was no highbrow or lowbrow culture for Ed. To him, it was all entertainment and he just went ahead and made the best of it available to those of us tuning in from home. So while the elitist in me wondered how Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy had become the first show of the new Broadway season, the kid in me didn’t find it all that strange.

Cirque, of course, is the French word for circus and if you’ve heard anything about this extravaganza, you’ve heard that it’s not to be confused with those produced by the similarly named Cirque du Soleil. In fact, the Florida-based Dreams and the Montreal-based Soleil waged a five-year legal battle over who should have the right to use the name “Cirque”; a U.S. federal court ruled that the term was generic and so shows combining circus acts, lots of recorded Euro-pop music and colorfully outrageous costumes are destined to become even more ubiquitous than they already are.

I may be the last theater lover in America who hasn’t seen any of the Cirque du Soleil spectaculars that first sprang up in Canada during the 1980s and have since become nearly ubiquitous here— Love, an homage to The Beatles is currently in permanent residence at The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. I kept meaning to go whenever a production came to New York but I somehow couldn’t work it up to get over to Roosevelt Island or down to Battery Park where the troupe set up camp during earlier visits and I got sick the night I had tickets for last winter’s Wintuk at Madison Square Garden. Cirque Dreams made it easy for me by coming to Broadway.

Everything about Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy is summed up in its title. There is no story as such. A singing Mother Nature and a violin playing tree man simply guide a young man listed in the Playbill as Adventurer through an enchanted forest, where acrobats, aerialists and contortionists perform fantastic feats that seem to defy the laws of gravity, physics and human anatomy. There is something almost primal about our enjoyment of circuses. Watching acrobats fly through the air or human pyramids climb three or four person tall tricks us into believing, at least in that moment, that humans really can do the impossible, could even be immortal.

Lots of kids were in the audience the night my sister, niece and I saw Jungle Fantasy and the little girl sitting across the aisle from us literally squealed with instinctive delight as the members of one act hurled themselves through the air. A chronic nervous Nelly who always fretted that the twirling plates would slip off the tips of the poles on the Sullivan show, I was somewhat more reserved and kept worrying that someone or something would fall but no less impressed when no one and nothing did
(click here to see an official trailer for the show, although it may take some of the surprise and fun out of seeing the real thing).

A few members of the audience were pulled on stage at the very beginning of the show (“Oh no, not me,” I heard the man sitting nearby implore but he got up and was a really good sport—he wasn’t a plant either because we saw him walking to the subway with his wife after the show let out.) But the majority of Jungle Fantasy’s 28 performers, who portray all manner of exotic flora and fauna, are drawn from beguiling-sounding places like the Moscow Circus School, the Kiev State School of Circus Arts and the Mongolian State School of Contortion. Judging from the looks of things, they were all on the dean’s list. Their show will only play at The Broadway Theatre through the end of August but if he were around, I’m sure Ed Sullivan would be scheming how to get them on his show.

1 comment:

Esther said...

Wow, there's a Mongolian State School of Contortion? Who knew! This show came to Providence last winter but I passed it up. I just didn't think I'd enjoy it all that much. But your review makes me wish I'd gone - it sounds like fun!