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Cirque scales back the spectacle in ‘Mad Apple’ premiere

Updated May 29, 2022 - 10:09 am

“Mad Apple” is at once a new Cirque show, and an acrobatic exercise in ownership.

The first Cique show to open in more than two years owns its place in the Las Vegas universe. From the top, the show needed to be themed for New York-New York, to keep with the resort’s immutable Big Apple theme. “Mad Apple” totally committed here, with its New York-flavored acts, skyline backdrop and such touches as a yellow cab cruising across the stage.

The show is performed under Lady Liberty’s crown, and also employs a “disco apple.” This is a very large, mirrored, apple you might have seen in Studio 54 that is the show’s signature, spherical effect.

“Mad Apple” also had to be responsibly conceived. Or, at least costing less than $10 million to develop. “Mad Apple” owns its place in the Cirque pantheon. This is not another of the company’s expensive, colossal Strip productions. It’s not “O,” and certainly is not set up as such a pricey, or especially risky, endeavor.

The show owns this reality, too. The fact that Cirque is so allergic to another large-scale collapse is actually a joke in “Mad Apple.” Comic Harrison Greenbaum (whose set is among the show’s many highlights) told Friday’s crowd, “If we make it to Saturday, we will have outlasted ‘R.U.N!’”

And that sense of humor is invaluable in “Mad Apple” which comes off as a tight, high-velocity hang in an impressively revamp. Cirque is living in reality with this show, but also asking you to suspend belief and buy into this madcap night in New York.

A comedy stop

“Mad Apple” has put a premium on comedy. The show comedians are very funny (which is helpful), but also uniquely skilled and appealing. Greenbaum brilliantly dives into a single sentence: “I just got engaged to a girl from Nebraska,” adding, “That’s a fun sentence to say, because different parts are surprising to each of you.”

Brad Williams has already found a groove with his diminutive stature, continually joking, “My parents always said I’d end up in the circus, and they were right!” And in thanking Cirque for hiring him, “We’ve never seen a midget in a circus before!”

And nobody on a Vegas stage does what the freestyle-rap comic Chris Turner does. Friday he mashed such subjects as Samuel L. Jackson, a dwarf in a pub, Dr. Who, Vladimir Putin and pregnant strippers. (Later, in a great callback, Williams showed up to angrily demand who called out the dwarf suggestion.)

In presenting three top comics, producer/director Simon Painter is leaving the funny to the pros. No script is assigned to this group. They say whatever they want. Greenbaum relishes that freedom with, “Hey, we have one seat open, out of 1,200. Or, as we call it, the reverse Criss Angel!”

(Thinking through this, Angel and Cirque can generate mutual marketing buzz from some open feuding, after Angel mocked Cirque during the “R.U.N” closing and also has tweaked the company in the opening of his latest, “Amystika,” at Planet Hollywood. Pass the popcorn, we say.)

Might as well jump

As a Cirque vehicle, “Mad Apple” has more than its share of circus acts. The company is still the industry leader in recruiting performers from around the world, and (in the case of accomplished duo straps act Sarah Knauer and Stephen Brine, formerly of “Absinthe”) just up the street.

The Ethiopian foot-flipping (popularly called icarian games) team of Tamrat Ayalew and Tomas Alemu, known as the TT Boys, has brought the crowd to a standing ovation in each show I’ve seen. The show employes one of the best hand balancers in the world, according to whatever international body ranks hand balancers, Valentin Chetverkin. Mr. Chetverkin has maybe negative body fat as he teeters atop a replica of the Chrysler Building. Next week, he performs without his safety line, which was attached Friday (need to get back to see this).

Another crowd-pleaser is hair-hanging aerialist Danila Bim. I call her a “hair-ialist,” a term that has not caught on. But her skyward, spinning act reminds of the great aerial artistry in “Zumanity,” in that same theater. And heads up to the comics, Bim’s husband, fellow performer Wayne Wilson, is totally bald. Something to work with there …

The acrobats come at you in droves, with the Mad Apple Acro Dunkers slamming ABA-styled, red-white-and-blue basketballs in a fantastically aggressive trampoline segment. The disco apple carries another aerial routine. A modified Wheel of Death is rolled out, single-wheel apparatus compared to the five wheels used in “Ka” at MGM Grand.

Of pace and time

The segments are connected and backed by a cracking backing band led by music director Xharlie Black (famously the great-grand nephew of music legend Nat King Cole). We have column fave and trumpet great Isaac Tubb in this mix, and (spoiler alert) a keytar is also involved.

The live music and assembled singers are invaluable to the acts, presenting a sense of urgency and energy to a show that still runs at least 20 minutes longer than it needs to. For all of its fast pacing and impressive acts, “Mad Apple” is still clocking at more than 85 minutes.

Know this going in, as there is also a pre-party amid the stage’s wonderfully conceived cocktail bars. This starts about 45 minutes prior to showtime, included in the ticket price and experience. And, a disco party, under the disco apple, is also being developed for after the late show.

The original “Mad Apple” concept was to connect the main show to these bracketing parties. It’s a little complicated, and it’s not there yet. For that concept to work, the show needs to shrink to about 75 minutes. Maybe shorter. The crowd needs to know the pre-show is germane to this New York experience — that’s the reason Cirque built the new main bar at the front of the stage. And if you want to play Tony Manero after the show, plan your time accordingly. That’s another half hour, at least.

Frankly, we’re unconvinced the show will be whittled any further than it is now. Why bother at this point, if you haven’t made those decisions over three weeks of previews? The show is now formally opened and dialed in, playing to happy crowds.

“Mad Apple” is not the Cirque we’ve come to know over the years, and that’s all right from here. It’s a good time with a fresh and fun cast. You’ll walk out impressed at all the thought and talent Cirque packs into a show, and that’s what it’s all about.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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