Magical and wondrous — two words that invariably come to mind when describing Cirque du Soleil.
For some 35 years now, the genius of Montreal-based Cirque has been the ability to take us to places beyond our imaginations, filled with glorious costumes, ethereal music, incomparable circus artistry, mind-boggling sets and, well, a whole lot of razzle-dazzle.
Magical and wondrous could also describe the Christmas season, in all its commercialized, tinsel-and-garland, deck-the-halls, haul-out-the-ivy, Sugar Plum Fairies and Ghost of Christmas Future fabulousness.
Put ’em all together – and we’re talking joy to the world, right?
Well, yes and no.
“ ’Twas the Night Before ...,” Cirque’s first foray into the realm of holiday show, made its world premiere Friday night at the Chicago Theatre. Inspired by the centuries-old poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” credited to Clement Moore), the show, a co-production with the Madison Square Garden Co., is heavy on fiery acrobatics and surprisingly light on Cirque spectacle.
The story begins with a father (Alexis Vigneault) reading the beloved poem to his iPad-toting, Beats-wearing daughter Isabella (Michelle Clark), who shows no interest in the recitation nor its holiday sentiment. Her exasperated father storms off in a huff, and suddenly a storm of another kind appears as Isabella’s journey begins (and it is here that the show takes some of its cues from two more seasoned Christmas Eve ”travelers”: Clara from “The Nutcracker” and Ebenezer Scrooge). Isabella is guided at times by a small ensemble of dancers who are keepers of tiny sparks of light illuminating the way and serving as the transitions between acts.
The land of the poem comes to life through a series of acts, beginning with Nicole Faubert and Guillaume Paquin on the aerial duo straps. A powerful pas de deux, indeed, though the confines of the Chicago Theatre’s proscenium stage do them few favors. Soon after, a spoiled rich girl (Katharine Arnold), decked out in all things merry and bright, transforms into a high-caliber contortionist who uses a hotel’s steel luggage cart as her aerial stage.
Eventually the journey takes us to an emotionally charged and beautifully choreographed aerial lamp solo routine by Vigneault, and the evening’s most exciting act (and on this night the biggest crowd-pleaser judging by applause) by a quartet of diabolo artists (Ming-En Chen, Tsung-Ying Lin, Ting-Chung Wang and Chia-Hao Yu) who seriously amp up the wow factor.
One slight bump in the night — and the story line from stage director/writer James Hadley — is an entr’acte of sorts, set atop a grand bed and featuring funnyman Francis Gadbois. With an expressive face and sinewy mannerisms befitting a long line of Cirque clown artists, Gadbois (along with an audience member plucked into service for the shtick) takes way too long to get to the punchline.
The two-level set design by Genevieve Lizotte consists of a lone backdrop, cascades of silver garland and icicle curtains accented by lighting designer Nicolas Brion’s homage to minimalism, and a slanted wall/ramp for acts to slide up or down or characters to perch upon. James Lavoie’s costumes, while shimmery and festive, are a far cry from the impossibly imaginative togs we’ve come to expect from Cirque du Soleil. There is music throughout (at times drowning out a narrator’s voice) — pre-recorded and reimagined arrangements/vocals of familiar Christmas hymns and secular hits and original compositions by Jean-Phi Goncalves.
Isabella ultimately gets her moment in the spotlight in an impressive hula hoop routine, but will it be enough to rekindle the holiday spirit in her? Will she and her father finally reunite? Will St. Nick make an appearance to our wondering eyes? Will giant, inflatable, peppermint-striped candy-inspired balls find their way out into the audience? Only a Grinch would tell.