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Cirque’s new ‘Zarkana’ feels familiar but reveals own beauty

Oh Cirque du Soleil, how you have spoiled us.

You give us a bewitching "snake lady" sprouting from a base of coiled serpents, putting a swinging pendulum-ball of fire in the way of a poor guy who just wants to jump rope up on a high wire.

And we say this is vaguely familiar.

It's definitely familiar a little later, when we see another guy skip rope in an impossible place: atop a turning "wheel of death," which is something akin to climbing out of your secured compartment on a midway carnival ride and going for a few spins up on top of it.

And we say we have seen this death wheel before, in "Ka."

So goes "Zarkana," the new Cirque at Aria, imported from Radio City Music Hall to replace the misfire that was "Viva Elvis."

How we respond to it depends on just who "we" are anyway.

Much like a first crush, there is a special place for one's first Cirque. If "Zarkana" is initiating you or your children into the entertainment dynasty's unique world, you may hold it as dear as Las Vegas locals treasure "Mystere" and "O."

But if this is your third, fourth or seventh Cirque, like most of the guests at Friday's grand opening, "Zarkana" is likely to inspire a bit of restlessness and may have you going back and forth like that fiery pendulum.

Sometimes you swing with the merits of a "greatest hits" approach that takes the company back home without the aid of Beatles or Michael Jackson songs. Other times you swing out from the ingrained Cirque aesthetic, wondering if the bag of tricks is close to empty.

Middled-out perceptions might be tied to the actual position of "Zarkana" in Cirque's universe. Because the show has traveled - to Moscow and Madrid as well as New York - it's more in line with the company's big-top touring productions than "O" or "Ka," where the humans share the wonder with technical hardware.

It now resides alongside those shows on the Strip, but on a conventional stage that doesn't break the fourth wall effectively with its clowning. Not, at least, until one clown (Wayne Wilson) takes a slow-motion flight over the audience after being shot from a cannon.

So it's bigger than a tent show, but perhaps still in need of a grand distinction. At the risk of a "grass is always greener" trap, I wondered if it was a mistake to strip "Zarkana" of the English-language lyrics that once were a key point of departure at Radio City Music Hall.

With the words now converted to nonsensical "Cirque-speak," Zark (Paul Bisson), the ringmaster at the focus of attention, just seems to be trying so hard to tell us something. As he gesticulates and sings so dramatically, he makes us feel like we can't help a poor foreign tourist get to Hoover Dam.

Zark's English songs also anchored a storyline that once supplied the forward motion. Now all but a wisp of that story is gone, and Nick Littlemore's songs have morphed into a more typically Cirque underscore; beautiful in places, annoying in others. Either way it's more cinematic than Littlemore's Elton John--endorsed credentials in pop-rock and electronica might suggest, even if the cinema might be an Italian horror movie of the '70s, where lullaby vocals and rock guitars collide.

But the characters remain: A "spider woman" as well as the snake lady (both played by Cassiopee), who seem vaguely connected to the grand old theater which Zark and the white ghosts of circus past have restored to magical, sometimes freakish life. And the ears do perk up when an occasional English phrase drifts back onstage as a clue to it all.

But all this is really to support to fresh twists on the acrobatic thrills, including a 15-person "Banquine" team who serve as one another's net. Those on the ground support those in the air, with one woman vaulting up to the top of a three-man human pyramid.

Still, the larger whole comes off as a bit languid. "Zarkana" runs about the same 95 minutes as the other Las Vegas Cirques, but feels longer. Yet it's an elegant type of languid, classy and beautiful throughout.

Director Francois Girard, costumer Alan Hranitelj and production designer Stephane Roy use video projections to give the stage extra depth, and fill it with deep reds to contrast the grey ghosts who help Zark bring his abandoned world to life.

Girard dares to open without a bang, instead rewarding the patient as the show stirs to life at its own art-film pace, first with a juggler of tennis balls (Masha Choodu) and then with a balancing couple (Dmitry Dvorerskiy and Vika Dvoretskiya ) working at the top of a ladder.

Once at full tilt the formula becomes more familiar, from Carole Demers somersaulting on the Russian Bar- a bendy balance beam held aloft by two guys - to a full-scale flying trapeze act, intriguingly framed within the web of the spider lady.

There is at least one sequence where Girard and his collaborators bring all the acrobatic and operatic elements stunningly together: hand balancing Anatoliy Zalevskiy framed by grand pianos performing a lovely stretch of score, with the ghosts suspended in the air behind him.

But the real scene-stealer is a "front of curtain" act whose functional purpose is to set up another big rigging in back. Sand-painter Vira Sivirotkina creates one detailed picture after another by pouring sand onto glass, wiping them away in an instant to create another.

And if some of us say we saw Joe Castillo do the same thing in "America's Got Talent Live" at the Palazzo?

At least in this case, the familiarity was not Cirque's fault.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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