Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bungle in the Jungle

If imitation is the sincerest flattery then the creators of the international entertainment behemoth Cirque du Soleil ought to be really flattered by Jungle Fantasy, the latest show from the Florida-based franchise Cirque Dreams. How flattered? Let me count the ways.

Singing female protagonist (Mother Nature, in this case) who leads male protagonist on a journey of discovery? Check. Non-stop, vaguely world-beat-style music? Check. Lots of European circus performers? Well, they're mostly from what used to be the Soviet Union but, yeah, check. Colorful costumes and sets? Yup. Lots of jaw-dropping, spectacular performances?

Well, you can't have everything.

That's not to say that there aren't some great acts in Jungle Fantasy, only that there aren't nearly enough of them. Probably the most impressive were Vladimir Dovgan and Anatoliy Yeniy, decked out in Day-Glo zebra-patterned outfits and balancing on top of tables stacked on a metal cylinder and then, even more insanely, on top of five stacked cylinders. Equally remarkable was the classic static balancing act of the "Jungle Kings", six strongmen decked out in lion-inspired costumes. Their combination of strength and control was world class. Ditto the "Contorting Lizards" - four impossibly nubile young women from Mongolia where the ancient art of contortionism is apparently something of a national sport.

There's also skilled juggling, including a short but eye-popping nine-ball routine from Russia's Andrey Averyushkin and a flashy routine using open geometric shapes (pyramids, square and the like) to form rapidly changing patterns in the air.

The rest of the acts are somewhere between competent and good. Some of the creature costumes were quite ingenious (my wife was especially taken with the colorful frogs) and the impossibly tall electronic violinist Jared Burnett made the most of the score, such as it was. The main problem is that nothing in the show - including the monotonous music and pedestrian lyrics - is all that original. You'd think that a company with $2.5 million to spend on its own 20,000 square foot production, rehearsal and training space could come up with something more creative than this. If Jungle Fantasy is any indication, Cirque Dreams is (to paraphrase J. Michael Straczynski) little more than Cirque du Soleil with the serial numbers filed off.

That said, I'd be less than honest if I didn't report that much of the opening night audience at the Fox seemed to be enjoying the show. Most of them even laughed at the opening routine, in which a pair of alleged clowns made fun of two pre-auditioned audience members. I found it predictable and annoying, but then my standard for that bit of business is the pre-show shenanigans of Circus Flora's incredibly charming Nino (Giovanni Zoppe), so perhaps my expectations are too high.

The bottom line on Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy is that if you've never seen Cirque du Soleil and aren't a regular at Circus Flora you might find this glossily packaged imitation entertaining. Small children almost certainly will. Whether or not you think that's worth up to $63 per seat is your call. The show runs through March 29th at the Fox; call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.