I am a big fan of Cirque du Soleil. Their shows are about giving an audience the absolute best live performances imaginable. They innovate and they add some elements that could be seen as strange to their shows but its a good bet that whatever they’re doing is worth going to see. So when I saw that they were bringing their touring steampunk inspired spectacle Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities to Randall’s Island in New York City I was very excited to see the show.
Earlier this year I attended Cirque du Soleil’s first foray into Broadway, Paramour. The musical was an intriguing and unique diversion for Cirque. They are well versed at creating both touring big top/arena shows and resident theatrical performances. Combining their circus elements with a musical really sounded like it would equate to a massive hit. Cirque du Soleil has been trying to establish a show in NYC for some time, ie Banana Schpeel at the Beacon Theatre in 2010 which was unsuccessful. Paramour which I enjoyed but did not love has recently undergone a revamp and an update. That said it is not a runaway broadway smash hit. I believe the elements that hold Paramour back are that the circus and traditional musical elements do not blend as well as they could. There are moments of course and perhaps in the updated show they’ve managed to fix the problems but putting on a spectacle is what Cirque du Soleil does best and the difference between these two shows is Kurios is entirely about spectacle.
From the time you enter the promenade on Randall’s Island for Kurios you are greeted by performers of various kinds. We saw stilt-walkers, fire-dancers and musicians in the first few moments of our arrival. We attended the event’s NYC premiere and so our experience was a bit more enhanced than the one the general public was going to receive but I do know that on days where weather permits they will have musical performers greet the audience by playing on top of the tent. The lobby for the tent featured a number of souvenirs, bars, food, and props from the show. After we walked through and sampled the food and drinks we found our way to our seats. We were in the second tier but our seats were excellent. To be noted we were in the same general area as many invited celebrity guests(Neil Patrick Harris, Debra Messing and Michael Musto) who were in attendance, just a few seats behind them. There were quite a few children but the show that night was filled with adults. I brought the same guest as came to see Paramour and this was their first true Cirque du Soleil big top show. They had enjoyed the circus elements to Paramour and I thought it would be fitting if they got to see the more tried and true Cirque experience.
I do not want to spoil all the elements of the show but I do want to discuss what we felt were our highlights. First, the concept was spectacular. The show is a love letter to steampunk. The official show concept details ideas of imagination and dreams but in execution the show features elements of time travel, automatons, locomotives, gramophones and for lack of a better term “mad-science”. Like most Cirque shows there are several different characters to help guide you through the show but if you do not know their names or understand their language it does not matter because you will find them all wonderful and endearing anyway.
As you take your seats characters roam the audience entertaining you with different props and performances. VIP audience members are taken on stage and allowed to run through a few of the Cabinet of Curiosities’ contraptions. A clock on stage counts up from 11:00 as the clock reads 11:10 there is a warning that the show will start. Once the theatre darkens and the performers come on to the stage we are introduced to The Seeker, the owner of the Cabinet of Curiosities and the main character of the show. The Seeker sits in their chair and at 11:11 is launched into the Cabinet and the show begins. From here the performances come quickly one after another all wrapped in beautiful steampunk affectation.
The opening number starts in the audience and sees the stage filled with automatons, percussionists, dancers, a juggler and acrobats. This was the kind of opening number that would rival a number of high budgeted broadway shows and was the perfect introduction to the kind of show we were going to see. The juggler and the percussionists were personal highlights but the entire performance is incredible. It brought a high energy buzz to the entire audience and set us up for the next section of the first act. Some of my favorite acts in the entire show are in Act 1 and again I do not want to ruin them but the Invisible Circus, Contortion and The Upside Down Dinner were some of the best acts of their kind I’ve ever seen. The Upside Down Dinner actually had people give them a standing ovation once it was over. Its funny, scary, beautiful and makes going to see the show completely worthwhile on its own.
There was a 25 minute intermission after the end of Act 1. It sounds like a long time to wait but it went more quickly than we imagined. In act two the Acronet, Aerial Straps and Banquine routines were all stellar, but I wanted to discuss two routines that stood out as being strange but still fantastic. The Yo-yo routine seemed like a truly eccentric idea when it is first introduced but the performance is top notch and its execution really sells you on the entire performance. I do wonder if it would have been better served early in Act 1 and not just after the Aerial Straps. The other performance is the Theater of Hands. Utilizing the same technique from Paramour of using a camera to capture a performance live and projecting it onto a hot air balloon movie screen this strange performance became one of my favorites of the evening. Its quirky, silly and equally as entertaining as some of the high flying death defying performances from earlier on. It just shows that the street performance roots of Cirque du Soleil are still alive and can be shared with an audience in a big top if presented correctly.
Another element I enjoyed were the set pieces. The band and lead singer were placed on stage inside of a giant “Turbine”, so you could see them and they weren’t in a pit below the audience. The singer also moved around with the show sometimes appearing from the very top of the stage. The Contortion and Theatre of Hands were both set on the standout prop of Kurios, The Mechanical Hand. It is a functioning automaton piloted by two performers and it can be used as a stage or a set. They treat it as if it is one of the characters in the show, and they should because it is just as memorable as any person on stage.
There are many acts I did not mention or go into detail about but it should be noted that myself and my guest loved nearly every act we saw. I will admit I did not love the Aerial Bicycle and while the Comic Act is funny it was a bit lengthy for my tastes. I think others will enjoy them thoroughly along with all of the other routines in the show. I feel confident in saying if you love live performance and can get out to Randall’s Island, as the clock on stage ticks at the end of the closing number to 11:12 you’ll have enjoyed your evening at the circus.
Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities will be in New York City until November 27th. Tickets can be purchased at www.cirquedusoleil.com/kurios. If you are not in the New York Area the show is on tour. Plans are for Miami in December, Dallas in February and Houston in April.