Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thoughts on Zarkana and Cirque du Soleil's Not-quite Musical Theatre

A week ago, I was invited to see a performance of Cirque du Soleil's latest offering at Radio City Music Hall, Zarkana.

Cirque du Soleil? you say. But this is a musical blog! Talking about this show here makes no sense and it makes me angry!!

Whoa, it's all good, I says. Just hear me out...

I have very limited experience with Cirque du Soleil, but I do remember my parents going to a performance in Vegas on a vacation when I was small. I flipped through the program when they got back to the hotel room and was shocked at (and honestly kind of scared of) some of the images in there. There was something about the aesthetic that was so out there -- colorful, at times grotesque, shapely like a reflection in a funhouse mirror -- that was captivating. And when my mom told me those things were actually doing crazy stunts and getting all up in the audiences' business, I actually got a little concerned.

Fast-forward another 12 years or so to this past fall, when my grandparents surprised my parents and I with tickets to Cirque du Soleil's Ka on a vacation in Vegas (full circle! -- and I just realized this makes it sound like the ONLY place I ever go to is Vegas). I had no idea what I was in for, which now when I think about it, was a good thing. Because once the lights dimmed and some of the creepy looking clown things stopped doing the pre-show audience thing (which made me incredibly uncomfortable), I was completely riveted until the lights came up again. Everything about it was enthralling -- the story, of a separated brother and sister trying to flee the enemies who killed their parents and find one another again, was simple but exciting, the stunts and acrobatics were like a video game with every "level" posing as some kind of stunt that they must defeat, and the set was stunning. I remember seeing the stage rotating, a giant ship appearing out of nowhere or a giant sandbox seeming to form out of nothing, and I was so inspired that someone would invest the time, space, and money to create something so theatrical and physically mammoth.

My experience seeing Zarkana last week was a little more mixed. While the acrobatics were still dizzyingly impressive and the aesthetic was still breathtaking, there was something keeping it from being as jaw-dropping as I remembered Ka being.

And what it was lacking was a strong narrative.

From my limited knowledge of Cirque du Soleil, Zarkana, in some ways, is more traditional musical theatre than its other shows. There is a protagonist, Zark, who has a simple problem: he is looking for his lost love amidst a bunch of crazy, tempting creatures. Or something like that. The show also featured full-fledged operatic-rock songs that Zark sang to tell his story of despair and longing, though the lyrics left something to be desired.

This past week on Crazytown, I wrote a post about being able to incorporate more visual elements into a more language/dialogue-heavy show. But how do you approach the challenge of doing it the other way around -- building a story and music around physical stunts?

There were moments of great beauty that came from Zarkana. I was particularly fixated on a dance/gymnastics routine that seemed to flow with the music quite seamlessly, and I heard multiple oohs and ahhs from the audience when a sand artist both recapped and foreshadowed the story through beautiful temporal pictures. Those fleeting segments especially worked because they embraced the storytelling aspects of theatre, fusing spectacle with story and song. I'm not calling Cirque du Soleil outright (or even great) musical theatre, but with all its resources and talents, if it truly aspired to be, it could be one badass show.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

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