Seeing Stars: a review of Cirque du Soleil's "IRIS"
I don't normally review stage productions.
But since the new Cirque du Soleil show, "IRIS"
is intended to be a permanent installation at the Kodak Theatre, in the
very heart of Hollywood, it will become part of what Hollywood
Boulevard has to offer visitors for years - perhaps decades - to come, beckoning
tourists and locals alike.
Since the show takes place in the special
theatre built especially for the annual Academy Awards, nestled between
legendary Grauman's Chinese Theatre (with its star footprints in cement) and
the popular Hollywood & Highland center, along the busiest stretch of the
Hollywood tourist scene, the question can't be avoided:
to Hollywood go to see "IRIS"?
First, a few disclaimers. Although I've been to more than my fair share of Broadway
shows & musicals here in L.A., I've never before been to a Cirque du Soleil performance.
(To be honest, I usually find the whole winking mime thing somewhat off-putting.)
So I went into this show with no real
preconceptions about what to expect, and (for better or worse) unable to
compare it to previous Cirque shows that have passed through L.A., or been staged in other cities.
Also, for the record, I had a near-perfect
seat for this performance: six rows back from the front, and almost
dead center of the orchestra section (seat F-8, to be exact).
Those seats would be ideal for
almost all other shows. But "IRIS" is such a large production, spilling out
of the stage and into the space above the audience, that I think that seats a
few rows farther back (perhaps rows I or J) might offer a slightly
better perspective of the "bigger picture". But they were fine seats.
And since I didn't see the show from one of the upper balconies (or opera boxes), I can't really comment on what the show would look like from above.
OK, with those details out of the way, we move on to the show.
Let's cut to the chase. Did I like it? Yes. Very much.
Is it a perfect show? No, it
isn't. There are a few rough edges that could be smoothed, a few
buffoonish moments that should be discarded... cuts that could make it a
near-perfect production. But it's still a pretty damn good show
as it is.
I found myself smiling in admiration
through much of the show's first half. Not so much in the second act.
But first, here's a sample video that does a pretty good job of summing up the highlights:
Even before the show starts,
you're introduced to a number of bizarre-but-intriguing characters, wandering around
off-stage, including a villainous fellow with a long whip for a hat, an
almost-headless character with very big shoes, a living camera, and a
girl wearing a praxinoscope skirt that displays moving pictures when she spins it.
Think Tim Burton meets Peter
Max in a steampunk fantasy, with just a touch of Monty Python's Flying Circus thrown in. (Not
surprisingly, the show's very effective musical score was written by Danny
Elfman, who has scored most of Burton's films.)
The show itself doesn't really have much of a storyline - and doesn't need one.
Oh, there's a bare bones
thread about a young man (sort of a Buster Keaton/Harold Lloyd
archetype) pursing a young starlet named "Scarlet" (despite the fact
that she's a blond - go figure).
But for the most part, it is a
series of acts and tableaux that make up a surrealistic celebration of
the theme of Hollywood and movie-making.
It's more about ambiance
than plot, more about painting pictures (both mental and visual) than telling stories.
Hollywood is its very general theme.
Don't expect to see references to particular stars or movies, because
The inspiration here is cinema in general, and that
theme serves only as a starting point for the performances,
dealing with broad cinematic genres, archetypes and locations.
What I truly enjoyed about the
show was how (at its best) it managed to elevate traditional circus elements to an
art form. To create an imaginative imagery and stunning visuals that
seduce the soul.
The human eye (and heart) responds naturally to beauty, to structure, to aesthetic forms, in a special way that athletic performances alone cannot match.
But it's the marriage of the two, of acrobatic skill and stunning visuals that make for this show's best moments.
In one jungle-themed scene,
for instance, we have a quartet of female Chinese acrobats/contortionists, performing a
routine not unlike acts I've seen often at the Los Angeles County Fair
and other venues.
But through a combination of lighting, costuming, rear-projection, and elaborate stage dressing, Cirque manages to transform that relatively simple performance into a dazzling B&W work of art.
In one of the earliest acts, a
pair of twin male aerialists, clad in white, defy gravity (and death),
soaring overhead, holding onto straps in precarious positions in
an intricate aerial ballet, plunging nearly into the audience, and
swinging (almost flying) about the theatre in ways that would put the producers of
Broadway's (now-closed) "Spider-Man" to shame.
The hi-tech on display here is
impressive (and contrasts nicely with the show's otherwise retro
zeitgeist). The best example is the use of infrared video capture
instantly project slightly delayed live, abstract images of the
scrims behind the characters. The effect is hypnotic at times.
And in the show's second half,
there's a near-perfect moment when the boy ("Buster") simply spins and
juggles a push-broom, while Scarlet performs a dynamic trapeze act
In lesser hands, it would be obvious that the boy's
role is to act as a distraction, while the girl gets up to speed on the
trapeze. But between Buster's sublime talent with that simple broom, the
stage dressing, lighting and music, the simple tableau becomes a
moment of high art.
Primarily visual, "IRIS" is
literally something that must be seen to be appreciated. Like
many good things, it is difficult to adequately put into words.
"IRIS" is at its weakest when it comes to their clowns. Not traditional circus clowns, of course, but their more surrealistic French cousins. A little of these buffoons go a long way. They work best in very short appearances, on the sidelines. When they take the spotlight, it almost always kills the pace (and quality) of the show.
This failing reaches its nadir
in an abysmal parody on the Oscars ceremony.
Since "IRIS" is
staged at the home of the Oscars, I suppose they couldn't resist, but
honestly, it is awful - replete with a drag queen and some off-color gags.
( Even the best, hammy efforts of an over-enthusiastic fan, pulled from the audience to participate during the performance I attended, couldn't save this debacle.)
Likewise, a female clown,
outfitted with a comically oversize rear end, exaggerated glasses, and
Marge Simpson-styled hair, appears far too often for her own (or the
As does the hobo-like fellow
who is revealed when the big-footed character removes his
head-concealing top hat. (He should have kept the hat on, and
preserved the mystery.)
Honestly, it's this sort of thing that made me stay away from Cirque for so long.
Fortunately, there aren't enough of these sophomoric antics to kill the show - they just diminish it.
My advice to the producers:
lose the clowns.
Keep them only on the sidelines, as interesting
bits of visual set dressing. They add nothing to the show, and cost
valuable time that could be devoted to another great acrobatic act or
spectacular musical piece.
I'm sure I'm not the only critic to have told you this. Listen to them. Trim the fat, and you'll have a better, tighter show that will run for years.
Moving on, an ambitious number, staged on a
traditional back-lot set of a NYC skyline (complete with rooftops and
water towers) doesn't work quite as well as it should, despite its
colorful setting. But it is still entertaining.
Involving a movie-style running battle of sorts,
it features performers falling from roofs, ricocheting off hidden trampolines,
and bouncing right back again to where they started. Initially, this is intriguing, but
the same basic stunts are repeated a few too many times, and the number grows
a bit weary before it ends.
The show regains much of its
momentum at the finish, climaxing in an orgasmic burst of glitter and
confetti that engulfs the audience, as a team of blue-clad aerialists
spin high overheard.
My bottom-line recommendation? See the show, if you can.
It is spectacular, and you'll leave with a smile on your face.
If you are used to paying that
kind of money for Broadway shows, then that shouldn't surprise
you. Buy your tickets and have fun.
But I suspect that the average
tourist strolling down Hollywood Blvd, who might consider dropping into the Kodak
to see "IRIS", may be shocked by how much they would have to shill out
for admission. Good seats for a family of four would cost over
$550, by the time you factor in fees & parking. Not exactly
something that most families could afford as a spur-of-the-moment treat.
So, even though the Kodak
Theatre and busy Hollywood Boulevard offers Cirque a constant parade of
potential customers streaming by their door every day, they probably
won't benefit much from the kind of impulse buys that are vital to
other businesses on the Boulevard.
The theatre itself is
delightful, a glittering pastiche of Hollywood's glory days (complete
with multiple balconies and opera boxes) that somewhat resembles an
over-the-top version of the old-fashioned movie palaces that once lined
L.A.'s own Broadway. In its attempt to mimic a French opera house, the theatre's somewhat eccentric interior fits
well with the Cirque mystique.
And, of course, no visitor is
going to forget that this is the Kodak, the place where Hollywood's
biggest stars gather each year for the Academy Awards. I overheard the couple
seated next to me musing about who might have sat in their seats
before: "George Clooney? Meryl Streep?", they wondered. No
doubt, many people will play that same guessing game.
But there are a couple
drawbacks. One is that the seats aren't quite as comfortable as
they should be (especially considering they were made for Hollywood
royalty). But that's a trivial matter, not enough to distract from
A bigger letdown (and not something under the control of Cirque) was the lobby of the Kodak.
Given the venue, I was
expecting something spectacular - but the Kodak's lobby here is surprisingly
plain. compared to, say, the lobbies of the Orange County Performing Arts Center or the
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. They could take a lesson from those old movie palaces, which always offered a lavish visual
welcome to visitors via their posh lobbies.
But to look at the positive
side, the relative plainness of the lobby makes the theatre's interior
an even more stunning surprise.
The bottom line is that
Hollywood Boulevard has added yet another top-notch attraction to its
ranks. And this one adds something badly needed to the
Hollywood/Highland area: live performance. The Boulevard has
always offered movies, museums, restaurants,
the Walk of Fame, and those famous footprints in cement - but until
now, it was rare to find a live show, especially one of this quality and
ambition. On a street known for its fame, but not necessarily for
its class, the arrival of "IRIS" is a development worth applauding -
both literally and figuratively.
"IRIS" adds one more layer to the ongoing Hollywood
renaissance, a grand $100 million layer, which will make visiting
Hollywood a much richer experience. (At least, for those who can afford
[For more information and tickets, go to www.cirquedusoleil.com ]
From the Hollywood Freeway, take the Hollywood Blvd and drove west
about a mile, to the Hollywood & Highland center, which will be on
Alternatively, get off the Hollywood Freeway on Sunset, go west to Orange Drive, and turn right (north) to the center.
Once on foot, from street level on Hollywood Blvd, the Kodak is reached
via a long, mall-like corridor that leads back north to the theatre
entrance. Look for the Kodak entrance - you can't miss it.
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