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La Soirée

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

La Soirée
Hamish McCann
Photo by Max Gordon.
Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Dreams, Spiegelworld... When you've seen one circus show, you've seen them all, right? Judging strictly by the latest one, La Soirée, which just opened at the Union Square Theatre, the answer would apparently be yes.

Though it draws heavily from European-style burlesque vaudeville — and thus particularly reminiscent of the various Spiegel outings — there's no escaping La Soirée's three-ring underpinnings. There are balancing acts, trapeze acts, pole acts, hula hoop acts, and an honest-to-goodness sword swallower. Sure, there may also be a fair amount of stripping — three men go most of the way, one woman goes all the way — and a pansexual emcee with a Freddie Mercury bent, but no matter what you're watching, the low-swinging and high-flying performers all feel coldly familiar, and, despite their obvious spice and skin, don't quite sizzle.

If your goal is to craft a demented, purgatorial cabaret, then obviously the first person you'd cast would be someone like this one's Meow Meow, who's a twisted cross between Eartha Kitt, Liza Minnelli, and Marilyn Manson. But when that leads into the first two pole dancers, "English Gents" Denis Lock and Hamish McCann, who start off in pinstripe suits and bowler hats and end up only in briefs emblazoned with the Union Jack, which in turn gives way to pleather-clad sword swallower Miss Behave and then "Mario, Queen of the Circus" (he's the Freddie Mercury guy), the one reasonable reaction is whiplash.

La Soirée
Miss Behave
Photo by Perou.
There's some cohesion to be found in the design, with the round stage constructed in the center of the now-arena-like theater, over which hang arching strings of bulbs (Willie Suddon is the lighting designer) that contribute to a mechnically festive atmosphere. Even so, it's not enough to draw you into a new universe, or even merely an alternate reality where the collision of these disparate pieces is not a ten-car pileup. (Richard Fitzgerald's loud-at-any-cost sound design distorts enough to highlight the screeching metal-on-metal effect.)

There's no way to not admire the athleticism of Stephen Williams, who performs a series of acrobatic twists and turns in and above a bathtub; the flawless comic timing of Mooky Cornish, who yanked a man from the audience and made him perform a scene and a song from West Side Story with her; or Ursula Martinez, who is, shall we say, unusually adept at hiding her red handkerchief. But smushed together in this way, above all else they seem pointless.

The better shows of this nature are able to assert their uniqueness while adhering to non-random concepts that provide at least a semblance of structure, all while still managing to be entertaining and even occasionally erotic. There's no shortage of fun to be had here, true — not a minute of the two-hour running time dragged — but it all exists in isolation. Enjoyable as Martinez's mock-Spanish act, Meow Meow's forcing men in the audience to assist her in her act or to swallow a lit cigarette she presents with her tongue, or Mario hoisting a terrified-looking woman onto his shoulders before stepping onto a unicycle or transforming the entire auditorium into a hand-waving mosh pit may be, none of it makes you anxious about the next wonderment — and when the arbitrary endpoint arrives, there's neither loss nor completion to experience.

As far as eye-popping sexy spectacles go, you could certainly do worse than this, and the big-top shenanigans pack more of a punch than those in Diane Paulus's overwrought Broadway revival of Pippin. But if it's tight enough to titillate, it's too scattered to satisfy. "The thing I do," Miss Behave heaved breathlessly after wrestling for three minutes with an ever-inflating latex glove that was encasing her head, "it's not so much 'wow' as... 'why.'" That same sentiment is wholly applicable to La Soirée.


La Soirée
Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street between Park Avenue and Irving Place
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster