Cirque du Soleil at the Forum
I’ve covered the five permanent Cirque du Soleil productions in Las Vegas about as often as they’d have me there over the past dozen years or so, a singular and memorable privilege which has afforded me some great times in that crazy city, including several deliciously lavish and debauched opening night parties lasting til noon the following day and, even more importantly, the inclusion in my life of a wonderful bunch of Cirque-employed friends.
My review of the troupe’s sixth permanent attraction, La Nouba at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, which I saw there earlier this month while visiting my now fully Blue Man-transformed friend Peter Musante, will show up here in print as soon as I stop trying to learn marathon lines for two plays at once and take a moment to write about it.
But oddly, I found it thrilling anew to be among the revelers invited to the opening night of Corteo, the first Cirque du Soleil touring production to hit El Lay in quite some time—with the exception of their first concert-format production Delirium, which played for only a few performances here at Staples Center last year.
Unfolding under the Cirque’s original blue and yellow Grand Chapiteau big top tent, this time ‘round plopped down in the parking lot of that concrete albatross the Forum in Inglewood, these genius contemporary French-Canadian Barnums simply enchanted me anew, as though I were a virgin Cirque du Soleil appreciator once again rather than an grizzled old Cirquewhore who can’t get enough of these guys no matter how many times I see them at work.
There’s something exceptionally alluring that instantly infuses a Cirque touring show, something even more otherworldly and magical in the presentation of it when one considers it’s just in town visiting and won’t play on in this one place for years to come.
No matter how much grander and technically superior the troupe’s permanent venues may be, this ethereal feeling afforded Corteo and its traveling predecessors gives these productions a heightened dreamlike quality all their own, not unlike viewing one of Christo’s massive environmental installations, such as “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park in early 2005, when 20-something years of planning culminated in an event which brought me to tears every day walking through it while staying at my usually subleased pied-de-terre there during its brief but glorious month-long winter stay.
One of the most fascinating things about Corteo, like KÀ at the MGM Grand in Vegas, is that it goes beyond acrobatics and unearthly physical feats performed by the most physically stunning and scantily-clad artistes in the world to tell something of a story, here dealing with the death of a bedridden clown (Jeff Raz), who envisions a grandly celebratory New Orleans-style funeral for himself. In his perhaps morphine-infused elation, he conjures a joyous carnivale atmosphere (Corteo means “cortege” in Italian), beginning with a gorgeous gaggle of bi-gendered angels floating above his bed who eventually spin themselves high overhead while hanging from oversized crystal chandeliers.
His deathbed fantasies continue with the aid of his lifetime circus friends, including a giant opera singing clown (Victorino Lujan), a balletic human marionette suspended from huge industrial strings (Rebecca Jose), jugglers, folks manning two-person horse’s costumes, impossibly buff tumblers turning two onstage beds into trampolines, and a sultry Adagio dance performed by a pair of extremely sensuous Little People (the show-stealing Valentyna and Grigor Pahlevanyan).
The Dead Clown’s visions offer him a plethora of imaginative places to explore before he finally shuffles off his mortal coil while traveling high above the stage peddling a bicycle on his way to wherever he has to eventually go, journeying along the way through highwire feats, a slapstick commedia dell’arte Punch ‘n Judy show dubbed Teatro Intimo, and a revolving sit-down concert performed with crystal glasses and luminescent Tibetan bowls of varying sizes.
This is all accompanied by a lyrical and often hauntingly beautiful original musical score by Philippe LeDuc and Maria Bonzanigo that has many roots but most particularly Flamenco, several numbers featuring Michel Vaillancourt on classical guitar accompanying plaintive, soul-stirring vocals by Paul Bisson.
Although following the dazzling crossing of Raz’ dying clown into the next world is a clever, whimsical, and sometimes even heartrending conceit, the actor’s continuous ongoing colloquial narrative describing his take on the evening’s events, spoken clearly over an attached body microphone in extremely casual conversational English (how un-Cirque!), is more of a distraction than an asset to Corteo. Somewhat akin to people who offer a running dialogue of ohbaby-s during sex, I found this device a bit, well, deflating—or should I say inducing of an onstage case of theatrical coitus interruptus.
Raz is obviously a fine performer, clearly a veteran clown and, though his croaking character must intentionally be a tad long-in-tooth, obviously once an athlete besides. Raz just appears not to be well trained or perhaps even aware that his live voiceover comes out rather blandly and projects little interest in the wonder of what his character sees or the transforming revelations he’s subsequently learning about his own mortality.
In comparison, from the ranks of Corteo’s 61 ultra-gifted performers (joyfully, for us all, recruited from 16 countries to interlace their individual skills into one miraculous whole) and playing a recurring character called the Auguste Clown, a sweet-faced and extremely charismatic young performer named Bruno Gagnon, to me, embodies the truly infectious spirit and excitement that so continuously energizes Cirque du Soleil.
With a goofily endearing sideward smile, a toss of his massive head of soft curls, and the body language of Chaplin’s Little Clown, Gagnon engages and rivets the attention of the audience whenever he is onstage, with everyone he has then so completely enchanted rooting for him in spades when he performs some incredible acrobatic tumbles and bounces throughout the presentation. Although there are plenty of angel costumes floating around this stage and even among the staff as the audience files into the Grand Chapiteau, this kid doesn’t need one to make himself angelic, utilizing his own natural abilities and devices to make that happen without benefit of detachable marabou wings.
There are many other standouts in Corteo’s cast, of course, especially Uzeyer Novrusov, adept at playing a comedic blind man teetering throughout the action and eventually doing a mind-blowing solo act climbing a ladder balanced on nothing at all but his own skill. That diminutive valentine Valentyna Pahlevanyan is also a major charmer, giving the entire audience a vicarious ride when she glides over our heads suspended from enormous helium balloons, relying only on us captivated patrons to keep her afloat and on the move with a little boost.
As created and directed by the amazing Daniele Finzi Pasca, Corteo, as the Cirque’s press release informs us, is meant to “juxtapose the large with the small, the ridiculous with the tragic, the magic of perfection with the charm of imperfection.” This it accomplishes as never before and the resulting experience is not one to overlook in the overwhelmingly prolific body of work created by Cirque du Soleil since its humble beginnings back in 1984, when a group of 20 incredibly innovative Quebec-based street performers decided to try something new. The inimitable result has benefited us all spectacularly ever since.
Just before the start of the opening night performance, the bored looking guy seated directly behind us who appeared as though he wished the Lakers were still playing this venue instead, was asked by his wife if he knew what the word Corteo meant. “Let’s hope it means short,” was his terse reply. At final curtain, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder to find him on his feet, cheering harder and louder than anyone around us. Cirque du Soleil has that effect on people.
Corteo plays through Oct 14 at the Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Bl., Inglewood CA; for tickets, call 800.678.5440.