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Wintuk

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Wintuk
Photo by OSA Images.
As a blanket of snow dampens sound in the city, so too does it bring a refreshing restraint and restfulness to Cirque du Soleil. While it's fairly hard to tire of the organization's usual gravity-mocking acrobatics and adult-oriented circus sensibility, it's nice to know they can also pull back and more readily embrace younger audience members. The new show Wintuk, which is playing at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden through January 6, is a happy - if wispy - case in point.

Written and directed by Richard Blackburn, it's a rosie-cheeked piffle about the attempts of a young boy named Jamie (one of Jacob Connolly, Kevin Csolak, or Noah Galvin) to bring snow - of any kind, he's not particular - to his wintry home. After having a series of mild-mannered adventures in the town square, he meets up with a milquetoast friend (Facundo Gimenez), an alluring pointe-dancing shadow girl (Teele Ude), and a homeless shaman (Angelica Norma) who transports them all to the mystical Northern land of Wintuk, where they're embroiled in a conflict between the locals and the shadowy interlopers who are apparently keeping the white stuff from falling.

Or something. As is typical with Cirque du Soleil shows, the finer points of the plot aren't really at issue, when they can be followed - which, in the Wintuk-set second act, they generally can't. As always, what matters is the acts themselves, and if those in this particular incarnation are on the sedate side, they just as compellingly explore the possibilities of the ground as previous outings' acts have the air.

Among the land-bound wonders in the first act alone: bicyclists, skateboarders, and inner-tubists negotiating a treacherous-looking double ramp; a slack-wire walker (rubber-limbed American Jamie Adkins) trying to rescue an errant pair of pants; a city maintenance worker (Alexandre Monteiro) defying all union precepts and balancing precariously on an ever-higher stack of rolling pipes and cylinders; and, of course, the requisite juggler (Timo Wopp) who starts with balls and moves on to silver batons, and is never satisfied until he can keep aloft half a dozen objects. There's an unquestionable street-performer mentality to all this - even the most exciting of the acts is fairly laid back, and they all tend to impress more than they astound.

Wintuk
Photo by OSA Images.
But grounding the acts in reality this way does help the second act up the ante, with more of the kind of fantastic foolery Cirque du Soleil generally delivers. There's a balletic diversion by two aerial-strap artists (Kylee Maupoux and Anke van Engelshoven), a hula-hoop contortionist of no small skill or flexibility (the legitimately gasp-worthy Elena Lev), and a climactic duel between two towering ice monsters that momentarily supplants humans at the center of the action. A soundtrack of haunting and narratively gentle tunes (the pleasant if forgettable work of Simon Carpenter), the glorious frigid landscapes of set designer Patricia Ruel augmented by Francis Laporte's whimsical-yet-epic projections and François Barbeau's May-December costumes, and packs of lovable giant sheepdogs and anthropomorphic lampposts help complete the two-hour evening. (Whether it's all capped off with a theater-engulfing blizzard will not be revealed here - as if it needs to be.)

Wintuk is an odd, if eye-popping choice for kicking off the 2007 holiday spectaculars: Unlike longtime MSG resident A Christmas Carol, or the musicals from Peter Pan and Annie the last couple of years, there's not much here of enduring social value. Nor is there the feel of an institution in the making, quite along the lines of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular (which turns 75 this year) or How the Grinch Stole Christmas (which turns two). But for non-taxing family entertainment, it's nonetheless a treat, and a heck of a spectacle for kicking off the season.


Wintuk
Through January 6
Theater at Madison Square Garden, Seventh Avenue at 32nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster