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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

This time of the year is stressful enough - do you really want to also weigh down your family theatregoing with burdens such as plot? If you've had enough of it, then proceed to the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden. Cirque du Soleil has remounted its seasonal spectacle Wintuk minus most of the story and the ritualistic spirit that characterized its premiere production last year.

Note that this is not necessarily a bad thing. The narrative, much like those in other Cirque du Soleil shows and various imitators and homages (Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy, the Spiegeltent outings), is approximate at best, invariably subservient to the lithe and lively performers who decorate it. Even if you couldn't care less whether the young boy Jamie (Darrin Good) finds snow in the frigid north to return to his barren village, wondering whether this guy will topple from 10 feet in the air or whether that woman will be able to untwist her tangled arms and legs is irresistible.

But without a thoughtful, consistent scenario linking such nerve-defying human feats, the show is all appetizer and no entrée. Last year's version (which was directed by its author, Richard Blackburn) was unquestionably messy and diffuse, deriving so much of its reason for being from myth and legend that in many ways it overshot its target under-10 set, but achieved thematic completeness because every element supported its worldview. The 2008 incarnation, recreated by director Fernand Rainville, is almost entirely bereft of connecting tissue, simplified to the point of incomprehensibility.

Most of the basic elements remain, though the once-key battle between two towering ice monsters has been reduced to little more than a vague bit. But you get a much shakier conception of the identities of and purposes behind Jamie's companions Wimpy (Gaspar Gimenez Facundo), a pretty young ballet dancer (Teele Ude), and the Shaman (Laure Fugere) who knows just where the snow can be found. They don't dawdle at all along their way; in fact, Jamie's quest begins and ends so quickly and nonchalantly that you risk missing it even if you're paying rapt attention from beginning to end.

If all the paring-down makes Wintuk less intellectually satisfying this time around, it's also greased the gears so much that the action moves with the speed of a world-champion figure skater - just what younger viewers want (and need) most. Many of last year's finest specialties - slack-rope walking, balancing on wobbling pipes, riding in or swiveling about on a selection of hula-hoop-style devices - are left intact, while a couple of the denser, less-unique ones (and some minor dance numbers) have been shaved down or deleted altogether.

All in all, they've freed up enough time for new Act I finale: a trampoline chase. A handful of green-clad robbers, bicycle-mounted police officers, and a quartet of friendly, shaggy dogs evoke in their bouncing, spinning, and rolling in this number exactly the pure, unadulterated joy that last year's mounting always seemed to just dance (and balance) around. The sequence is so dizzying and dazzling that sacrificing some of the story to work it in almost seem sensible.

Good looks and sounds noticeably older and less innocent than last year's Jamie, and seems to take a more participatory role in the fun. But otherwise, the performances and the physical production are functionally identical, never disturbing the show's machinelike efficiency. Francis Laporte's projected backdrops retain the right sense of studied whimsy, while the sets (Patricial Ruel), costumes (François Barbeau), lights (Yves Aucoin and Matthieu Larivée) and puppets (Barbeau, Ruel, René Charbonneau, and Michael Curry) create vivid equivalents farther downstage.

Watching them, and hearing the ethereally wintry score of Simon Carpentier (music) and Jim Corcoran (the largely indecipherable lyrics) is like sitting through an animated holiday special you've never seen before: within certain proscribed boundaries, anything can, and probably will, happen. If the changes made to Wintuk have steered it more in the direction of the two-dimensional, a great deal of fun and wonder is still in place. But parents: Make sure your kids know they shouldn't expect to follow the story - or to discover under the tree the trampoline they'll undoubtedly want after seeing the magic one can inspire.

Through January 4
Theater at Madison Square Garden, 4 Penn Plaza
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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