Latest 'Cirque Dreams' illuminates urban landscape

There may well be something in our genetic heritage that makes us susceptible to circuses. The ancient Romans sure treasured theirs, especially with a side of bread; kids of more recent times routinely dreamed of running away with them.

And while the traditional idea of an ooh-and-aah circus with animals and all might have gone into decline, the genre continues to thrive, thanks to a French twist. Call it a "cirque," and the sky — or the highest wire — is the limit.

The Cirque Dreams brand, created and directed by New Yorker Neil Goldberg, has carved out an impressive market niche since the late '90s. Goldberg's recent extravaganza, "Cirque Dreams Illumination," in residence at the Hippodrome Theatre for a couple of weeks, is likely to satisfy seasoned circus-cravers and even those rare types with circus allergies (like me, I confess).

Goldberg packs the kinetic energy of aerialists, jugglers and balancers into a handy theatrical vehicle. The framework, provided by Jon Craine's eye-catching, imaginatively detailed scenic design, conjures up what appears to be a lower-rent neighborhood of New York, where graffiti is plentiful, the trains are noisy and the pedestrians fun and often kind of funky.

There's even a tiny bit of a plot, with a TV reporter and crew arriving on the scene at the start to capture some "daily occurrences" in this colorful urban landscape. The slice-of-life angle works well enough, but let's face it, people aren't coming for a story line. They want twirling, twisting bodies, impossible feats of strength and agility. They want magic. And for the most part, they get it.

The opening sequence unfolds cleverly. As the city slowly awakes, quick-change artists (to be more technical, a "clothing magician" and "fashion illusionist") whirl through an assortment of snazzy outfits, and the reporter sings a tune called "Change": "Switch the gears … Let it all unwind … If you don't like it, change your mind."

That's one of the easily forgotten dance-beat numbers in the show's prerecorded score by Jill Winter and David Scott. Of course, you don't come for the music, either. (The smattering of vocal pieces are assigned to the roaming reporter character. On opening night, Onyie Nwachukwu was an amiable presence in that role, but her badly amplified singing needed clearer diction and tonal strength.)

Things quickly get more physical. A segment for "cube aerialists," who take flight in increasingly intricate, interconnected patterns, is among the startling highlights. Trash cans and, especially, paint cans are put to danger-skirting use along the way.

Robert Muraine, the popper dancer who famously bowed out of TV's "So You Think You Can Dance" but gained a big fan base anyway, employs his impossibly malleable body to remarkable effect in several numbers. And Andrey Averyushkin, as an elfin porter with an electric smile, does an impressive juggling act on a large drum set, said to be a first. (He recovered quickly from the occasional fumble at the opener.)

Even background figures, vibrantly costumed as everything from train crossing guards to headless, newspaper-clutching businessmen, provide abundant diversion.

Some sections drag, though. The sight of a man (Jean Chiasson) emerging out of water-filled tub, soaring and spinning on straps, dousing the stage as he flies, is cool the first few times, less so after that.

Comedian Martin Lamberti, a wonderful throwback to the days of vaudeville, adds a lot of character to the proceedings. At one point, he "directs" audience volunteers in a movie about a messy love triangle — Lamberti plays a mean whistle, in lieu of speaking. It can get laughs, as it did opening night, but it does take a toll on the show's momentum.

Worse, there's not enough buildup or payoff to the second-act finale, which would help boost the theatrical ambitions of the show. Still, "Cirque Dreams Illumination" does what it sets out to do, shedding unexpected, fanciful and entertaining light on ordinary things.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

"Cirque Dreams Illumination" runs through Oct. 17 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $22-$77. Call 410-547-7328 or go to broadwayacrossamerica.com/baltimore.

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