You may recall that the Tony Awards got booted out of the Radio City Music Hall this year and had to make do with the Beacon Theatre, which is about half the size. (Roughly 6,000 versus 3,000 seats.) This caused no end of consternation on the part of Broadway producers, some of whom had to settle for seats out in the hinterlands, and some of whom, so I'm told, couldn't get tickets at all. (Bear in mind that, these days, a single Broadway show can have 20 to 30 names above the title. It takes a village.)
Well, all those disappointed backers can blame Cirque du Soleil for their ignominious treatment. The folks at Cirque struck a deal with Radio City to develop one of their fancy-pants spectacles specifically for that fabled venue. The result was Zarkana, and if I were one of the slighted, I'd be kinda pissed. It's not that Zarkana is bad. It's just that, if you've seen any of Cirque's other shows, it pales in comparison.
Zarkana represents a return to Cirque du Soleil's roots after the disastrous critical reception for its most recent New York City outing, Banana Shpeel, which played the Beacon Theatre. (Some would call that ironic. They'd be wrong.) I didn't see Banana Shpeel, but by all accounts it was a failed attempt to create a more strictly theatrical show, and evoke the look and feel of vaudeville. The show had tremendous, and well-publicized, difficulty during its tryout period (insert Spider-Man reference here), and closed months early at a significant loss.
I'm a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil, having seen almost all of their shows either live (The Beatles: Love, KÀ, Mystère, O, Dralion, Nouvelle Experience, etc.) or on DVD (Alegria, Quidam, Varekai, La Nouba, Corteo, etc.). A few holiday seasons back, I sacrificed one of my precious New York City show slots to see Wintuk. I even made a rare foray into reality TV to watch "Fire Within," a show about a number of Cirque cast members during the development of Varakai. As a consequence, I've come to expect more and more from them over the years. I guess you could say I'm both their biggest fan and their harshest critic.
I will say that Cirque works marginally better at Radio City than it did at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, which is where Wintuk played. There's something about the playing area at the MSG theater that made the acrobatic acts look puny. The grand proscenium at Radio City was more accommodating to Cirque's brand of panoramic imagery.
One mistake that Cirque made with Wintuk that it repeats with Zarkana is having the vocalists sing English lyrics. This is clearly not in Cirque's best interest. It gives you a chance to notice that the words don't really mean anything, at least not in the larger context of the show. The foreign lyrics used in most of their shows are much easier to ignore, and therefore forgive. Perhaps the folks at Cirque figured that, since a good portion of the audience for Zarkana will be tourists, that English will in fact be a foreign language. Also, the male vocalist, one Garou, was essentially a gravelly Neil Diamond with a soul patch. (And there should be a law that you don't get to have a pretentious one-word name until you're actually famous.)
Zarkana features everything you've come to know and presumably love about other Cirque shows, including stunning visuals, a flimsy narrative conceit, and a general barrage of sight and sound. Although, I think here, the creative staff may have gone a bit overboard in their quest to create something new. The abundant digital projections featured a host of genuinely disturbing images, including slithering snakes, enormous floating eyeballs, and a six-armed talking mutant baby who says, "Welcome to my funeral."
What's missing in Zarkana is the "wow" factor that so many of Cirque's other shows feature in abundance. The actual acts, around which most Cirque shows are structured, are for this show almost entirely ordinary. Granted, I've seen seen almost every Cirque show, and it would be sort of hard to "wow" me at this point, but they've certainly managed to impress me almost continually over the years.
There are a few elements in Zarkana that were somewhat new to me, including a visually arresting act featuring young men juggling what appear to be large, strangely weighted flags. There was something about how these flags filled the full height and width of the stage that I found fascinating. And the top of the second act features something I've not encountered before: a woman creating sand art on a lighted screen while the images are projected over her head. Some of the images were a bit too impressionistic to impress an antsy crowd of children (and this ADHD adult), but there are some really stunning images that she is able to create on the fly.
But, overall, too many of the acts here are decidedly pedestrian, more of the Barnum and Bailey variety than what you'd typically expect from Cirque. Most are rather short, and there are many of them in succession, as though the creators are going for sheer quantity to make up for a lack of big, impressive set pieces. There are jugglers, trapeze artists, balancing acts, etc. The cast features about 75 people in total. But what's amazing is that there could be so many people on stage to so little effect. The final acrobatic act, featuring 16 tumblers moving to some rather sharp and visually interesting choreography, is quite impressive. But in another Cirque show, this would probably have been the one act that you forgot amid the parade of wonder. Typically, you can count on Cirque at least for eye candy, but that is also sadly lacking in Zarkana. The group of tightrope walkers may be the most out-of-shape acrobats I've ever seen.
Zarkana runs at the Radio City Music Hall through October 8th, followed by stops in Madrid and Moscow. If you're jonesing for a Cirque fix and can't get to Vegas or Orlando or Los Angeles or Tokyo, or see one of the touring shows, it's certainly worth a trip. But if you've experienced any of their best shows -- including my personal favorite, KÀ -- you might be disappointed. I know I was.