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'Zarkana' unveiled in New York with mixed results

That Cirque du Soleil still doesn't have a permanent home in New York is somewhat bizarre.
/ Source: The Associated Press

That Cirque du Soleil still doesn't have a permanent home in New York is somewhat bizarre.

New York is already a circus town: It supports two — Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and the Big Apple Circus. Plus, anyone riding the subway during rush hour will appreciate a good contortionist. And clowns? This city has plenty of 'em.

Yet Cirque's presence has been spotty, consisting mostly of traveling shows such as "Kooza" and "Wintuk," even though their permanent shows have thrived in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. An attempt to create "Banana Shpeel" here as an annual event last year fell flat.

So it's with a dash of brashness that Cirque opened "Zarkana" on Wednesday at Radio City Music Hall, hoping its 12-act, $50 million "acrobatic rock opera" might become a summer staple, the equivalent of warm weather Rockettes.

Its ambition is evident in its location — the hulking, 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall with one of the largest stages in the world and a far cry from the more intimate venues Cirque has used before in the city. The massive size offers "Zarkana" the ability to have three trapeze artists swinging abreast, but threatens to swallow up smaller acts, such as the solitary hand-balancer or the juggler.

The biggest, most muscular acts — the acrobats rolling around inside Cyr wheels, the frightening Wheel of Death and the demanding trapeze — give visitors the red-meat experience of the circus, while softer acts such as a sand painter, an aerial rope duet by two graceful performers and eight men tossing around flags have the feel of an Olympic opening ceremony.

Overall, this may not be the homerun that Cirque was hoping for. The show, which leaves for Moscow and Madrid in October and hopes to return to New York next summer, seems to suffer from franchise fatigue. There's nothing gasp-worthy here for a jaded city where Broadway is just a few blocks away. Few veterans of Cirque will be stunned.

"Zarkana," written and directed by Francois Girard, has a very loose plot that tries to connect the acts without much success. It centers on a magician (the Canadian singer Garou, doing his best Tom Waits impression) who is trying to find his lost love and thereby his professional mojo in an abandoned theater. There's also a screechy original score the melds elements of rock opera, electronica and world beat by Nick Littlemore.

There are some clunky notes, and not just in the music: An act focused on three family members using ladders was scary at a recent performance, and the ladder shook so much it was robbed of its slickness; the high wire act was oddly paired with a singer who was supposed to resemble a snake and whose too-loud song was punctuated by bursts of fire; the use of digital acrobats to enhance those using the Cyr wheels felt like cheating.

One of the most unexpected sights — yet strangely reassuring — was that some of the male acrobats were noticeably paunchy.

No Cirque show is complete without whimsical clowns, and this one is lousy with them. They are mostly naughty and dressed in white costumes with stupid hats, and they quickly get on one's nerves as they wander around creating mischief. (One young woman in pigtails and a tutu snaps a whip and babbles like an infant for reasons that are not immediately apparent.) There is also the use of an electric chair, which begs the question: Why are they using an electric chair in a show appealing to families?

Some nods to New York are somewhat clever. The two lead clowns Hocus and Pocus are seen with the humble pretzel, that Big Apple staple, and one of them takes a slow-motion ride over the audience displaying his allegiance to the Yankees. He also goofs on another expensive rock-opera stunt-heavy extravaganza going on in the city — "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."

Actually, it's either a coincidence or an intentional knock that the trapeze act has a strong Spider-Man feel to it. A spider-woman (the Canadian singer Cassiopee) sings suspended within a web of ropes as 13 acrobats twist and fly between four platforms and a swing — a thrilling act that probably should be the big finale but instead is near the top of Act 2.

Stephane Roy's sets do a marvelous job of respecting the Radio City Music Hall stage, using a series of three progressively smaller, intricately carved arches that frame the action, as well as projections of everything from roses to snakes.

The finale is the banquine — 13 male and three female gymnasts who do a balancing and acrobatic act not dissimilar to competitive cheerleading performances. They create human pyramids and launch each other high into the sky, at one point creating two towers of four people standing on each other's shoulders.

Interestingly, some of the biggest cheers were reserved for an act that was very light on muscle and also decidedly low-tech: Erica Chen stood over a lightbox and drew beautiful pictures projected onto a screen using only her fingers and nails.

Sometimes the most thrilling thing can be deceptively simple, as Cirque du Soleil is no doubt already learning as this multimillion-earning Canadian outfit tries to again charm New York.