Opening Nights: Kooza

Cirque du Soleil appeals to the Dockers crowd.

American audiences want their latest fix of Cirque du Soleil the way they want a Shrek sequel or a new style in jeans—different enough to appear fresh, but instantly recognizable as part of a franchise. Over time, though, tiny stateside influences have crept into Quebec's best-known entertainment export. The dark undertow that swirled beneath earlier shows like Varekai and Kà has been supplanted in Kooza by a child's wonder at the magical world of acrobats and scampering funnymen whirling around him. Why is that a good thing, you ask? Well, I for one am glad to see Cirque embracing Americana rather than trying to distinguish itself from anything that has the whiff of "Yankee Doodle" about it. Acknowledging Hollywood and MTV doesn't damage the Cirque brand or loosen its ties to commedia dell'arte or the cabarets of Eastern Europe. Kooza isn't selling Big Macs, but it's using pop culture to help provide a portal for youngsters who've never seen anything like what these French Canadians offer.In fact, Cirque's signature ingredients are all still very much in play; only there's more emphasis on carnival than mystery. What's missing in menace is counterbalanced by a newfound accessibility. Kids can imagine themselves as the protagonist, a Little Nemo-esque clown called The Innocent (Stéphan Landry). Moms can feast their eyes on a parade of costumes and taut-bellied performers who have probably never even seen an Ab Blaster, let alone used one. And dads can admire those exhibitions where verve meets viscera—or, like me, simply entertain a few fevered reveries as contortionists and acrobats drape themselves from above like so much ripe fruit.The typical world music–meets–Céline score is well in evidence, but is tempered here and there with elements of '70s funk and pop hooks. There's even a wink and a nod to Thriller, perhaps to remind patrons that the Jackson estate and Cirque are now collaborating on a stage tribute akin to the Beatles' Love.The rest is Cirque's eye-popping sensory overload. As the host of Kooza's magical realm, Mike Tyus puts a comic-book spin on his role (think Joel Grey in Cabaret).There's also a mad king (Ron Campbell) and his two imbecilic lackeys (Colin Heath and Jimmy Slonina), a pickpocket magician (Christian Lindemann), and an array of the finest acrobats anywhere to be found. In particular, they dare to ride "The Wheel of Death," a kind of dual hamster track that acts like a vertical centrifuge. Zhang Gongli balances himself on chairs that reach three stories into the air, and a quartet of high-wire artists bicycle from one platform to another on a pair of bicycles—one riding on a chair suspended between the two bikes on a support no wider than the average broomstick.The performers' bald pates and tribal tats remind you that this is no Ringling Bros. circus. It's more Ibiza than middle America. Still, it's evident that writer/director David Shiner wanted his show to have something for everyone—including the burger-munching, Dockers-wearing Americans and their kids. And that makes this show his triumph, and Kooza the best introduction to Cirque du Soleil you're ever likely to see.

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