It has been awhile since I saw my first (and, 'til now, my only) Cirque du Soleil show -- Mystere, the first Cirque show, if I recall correctly, to set down roots in Las Vegas. I don't remember much about the show (of course, the web is now a big help in that regard), but I do remember being vaguely stunned as I left the theatre. The $60 or so per ticket we paid more than a decade ago, which seemed expensive -- hey, it is expensive -- felt like a bargain after watching the show. Some of the acrobatics of the Montreal-based troupe made the crowd gasp in ways you just don't often hear outside a sporting event.
Fast forward more than a decade, and the Canadian-based Cirque has 21 shows currently (or shortly) in performance all around the world. This month, their show KOOZA set up their tent in the parking lot of the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale (suburban Phoenix), and my wife and I went to the show's first Phoenix-area performance.
I have no doubt that there are Cirque du Soleil fanatics who have definitive preferences for particular shows, and who rate the stories in each show as part of their overall enjoyment.
I am not that person. Although I am generally a person who buys into highfalutin descriptions of cultural themes, the themes for Cirque shows seem a little... too much. I mean, I buy "an adrenaline rush of acrobatics in a zany kingdom" as a tagline. But stating that "[b]etween strength and fragility, laughter and smiles, turmoil and harmony, KOOZA explores themes of fear, identity, recognition and power" oversells the narrative a bit. Sure, I think I could identify the sketch that touched on each of those issues. But that's not why I (or, I suspect, most of the attendees at any given performance) attend.
It's to see the "Wheel of Death" and other feats of acrobatics which will literally take your breath away, if only temporarily. If you want to see what the "Wheel of Death" is, you can Google for YouTube links which, theoretically, are prohibited by the terms of agreement of seeing a Cirque show. But I wouldn't do that, not for any legal reason, but because a good part of the joy and excitement of seeing these shows is the not knowing what might happen next. I wouldn't say it's like people who go to a NASCAR race in the ever-so-slight hope of seeing a big car crash, though watching one of the teeterboard artists fail to nail her landing was an unintentional reminder that these are people doing physical things that might not succeed.
Most of the acrobatics are stunning -- besides the "Wheel of Death," which, trust me, will cause you to gasp several times, audibly, the High Wire, Balancing on Chairs, and the totally-underselling-its-appeal-named Hoops Manipulation acts were my favorites. To some extent, the show takes classic circus acrobatics and amps up the entertainment value by adding crazy costumes and hair extensions and innovative stage design. I'm not saying this as a criticism -- I'm saying this to illustrate the fact that Cirque du Soleil has figured out how to improve these forms in each and every way -- both talent-wise and presentation-wise. It's the difference, frankly, between a $25 ticket and an $80 ticket.
The clowning interludes, while occasionally pretty funny, are less essential to enjoying the show. There's a pickpocket, an annoying tourist, a king, and a bad dog. They are funny, occasionally employing a little PG-13 humor, and most of the time, I just wanted them to get off the stage so we could enjoy another acrobatic entertainment.
As for the story, the show "tells the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world." I am here to tell you that the story is irrelevant to your enjoyment of the show. I think the Innocent found his place in the world - I just can't tell you where that place is. And throughout the whole piece there's a six-piece band (and vocalists) playing along. The music and lyrics are very non-specific in their sound -- it's vaguely Indian "World Music," which no doubt makes it easier to translate the show from country to country.
Should you bring your kids to KOOZA? Well, we didn't have our kids with us, but there were more than a few slightly older kids there. While it is no means a slow-moving show, it doesn't move fast enough to consider bringing your preschooler or more antsy young elementary school student. Kids ages 7 and up will probably ooh and aah over the gymastic/acrobatic portions. Their mileage for the clowning portions will vary.
As for you, kindly adult reader, KOOZA may be over the top at times, but to a large degree, that's just the point. As long as you're willing to be awed by some incredibly skilled performers, you will, in fact, be awed.
KOOZA plays in Phoenix through July 15, and continues its tour in Houston, Dallas, and Tampa before heading to the United Kingdom in 2013. Tickets and more information are available here. Note: My wife and I received complimentary tickets for a performance. No review was required or expected in return for our attendance.