Over the years, Cincinnati has seen its share of non-traditional shows as part of their Broadway Series, such as Stomp and Blast, which take a specific art form and present it in a theatrical context. There is no doubt that Cirque Dreams – Jungle Fantasy, currently playing at the Aronoff Center, contains high-level and excellently executed circus acts that are to be admired, but the attempt to insert them effectively into a story and theme falls flat.
Cirque Dreams – Jungle Fantasy vaguely tells the story of an "Adventurer" who gets swept into a jungle world, where Mother Nature guides him along a unique journey. What it basically comes down to, however, is Mother Nature sings a brief song telling a generic "discovery" narrative, and then a circus act is presented that, to varying degrees, has some connection to the jungle (this is mostly achieved through costumes). It doesn't help that the songs, provided primarily by Jill Winters, are instantly forgettable and contain banal lyrics and derivative melodies that you'll swear you've heard somewhere else before.
The design elements don't help much either. The simple unit set by Jon Craine is a bit too busy and is bathed in Amazon green (reminiscent of the color palette used by the Broadway musical Tarzan). The costumes are laughable at times, with little cohesion and coming across as a mix of bad amusement park strolling characters, "My Little Pony" rejects, and a "Saturday Night Live" spoof of The Lion King. The lighting does a decent job of showcasing the performers, but is sometimes too dark.
The choreography by Tara Jeanne Vallee won't impress anyone used to seeing Broadway caliber dances either, regardless of how acrobatic or graceful the performers may be.
Creator and director Neil Goldberg may not have achieved theatrical glory with this production, but he must be given credit for finding, nurturing and crafting some very solidly entertaining and precisely executed circus acts. Though some of the acts seem a bit constrained by the limited performance space, the skill displayed is first-rate and staged in a visually pleasing manner. Contortionists, cube manipulators, aerialists, acrobats and dancers fill the stage with graceful poses and amazingly stunning feats. Some of the acts, however, stand above the rest. A jump rope routine (here called "Vine Swingers") is an energetic and high caliber way to kick off the primary circus acts, with numerous and fast paced stunts in a variety of arrangements. In "Froggling," Andrey Averyushkin expertly juggles four and five balls off a drum set in multiple patterns in a feat of extreme dexterity, before bounce juggling seven and then nine balls off the floor. The second act drags a lot, through a long blacklight portion before making up for it with the show's best routine, when Vladimir Dovgan and Anatoliy Yeniy present one of the world's best (from both a technical and performance aspect) rola bola acts. Here, the duo balance on cylinders and boards to amazing heights, all while seemingly daring fate and gravity. This is the only act in the show that reaches the difficulty and entertainment level of the more famous Cirque Du Soleil and other top flight modern circus groups. The show's final main act is the crowd pleasing "Roar," in which men of immense strength called the Jungle Kings balance each other in near impossible poses. From a circus perspective, the accomplishments of the performers are praiseworthy and audiences will be impressed, though one would love to have a few more "wow" moments throughout the show.
As Mother Nature, Amanda Restivo sings well and captures the tone of the piece capably, but is saddled with unfortunate material. Jared Burnett (Soultree) provides expert live violin accompaniment to many of the acts, but almost all of the rest of the music is supplied by a pre-recorded soundtrack. Marcello Balestracci showcases a wide variety of acting, dance, acrobatics and circus skills as the Adventurer.
Audiences seeking a clear story or an emotional connection through Cirque Dreams may be disappointed. But, if one is looking to be amazed by quality and well-performed circus feats in a theater setting, this show should easily meet your needs. Cirque Dreams – Jungle Fantasy continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio through April 12, 2009. For more information and tickets, call (513) 241-7469.
Note: Writer Scott Cain brings the unique perspective to this review of having not only been a theater critic and lyricist for nearly twenty years, but also being a professional juggler (and former circus performer) for over twenty-five years.