Web-scampering arachnids and a high-flying Spider-Woman are prominent in “Zarkana,” Cirque du Soleil’s faltering attempt to lure New York audiences out of the tent and into a theater.
At Radio City Music Hall, there’s no cirque and no soleil. Nightmarish imagery, lots of screeching music and blinding lights add a grating layer of punkish silliness -- Cirque’s stock-in-trade -- to some heart-in-mouth acts of athletic derring-do.
At one point during the trapeze act, a vaguely female spider-like creature flew overhead, across the vast expanse of Radio City’s gilded orchestra. It wasn’t exactly Spider-Man versus the Green Goblin, though it lasted several minutes longer than the vaunted battle scene playing a few blocks away.
Cirque du Soleil dresses up circus acts and sideshow curiosities in the clothes of Pop Art. It has become a global franchise with permanent installations in apt spots like Las Vegas. While the tent shows have done well on New York’s Randall’s Island, last year’s attempt to move onto the stage -- “Banana Shpeel,” at the Beacon Theatre -- was a humiliating, $20 million fiasco for Cirque founder Guy Laliberte.
“Zarkana” isn’t as bad as “Banana Shpeel,” and the sheer size of the Music Hall lends a certain grandeur to what is essentially high-end vaudeville. The show opens with Maria Choodu, a master juggler, and the show’s limitations are evident from the outset. No matter how any balls she can keep in the air, she’s still just one lone figure working a stage the size of Rhode Island.
If writer and director Francois Girard is telling a story (“chaos and craziness give way to festivity and love regained,” according to the program), it’s lost in horrid amplification and the offkey singing of an unidentified ringmaster, rendering every lyric unintelligible (doubtless a good thing).
When “Zarkana” gets down to the business of stopping our hearts for a few beats, it’s awesome. Trapeze artists soar, tightrope walkers precariously pile on top of one another, two brothers defy gravity on what appears to be the world’s biggest Wheel-O. There’s also some deadly clowning.
You won’t find sawdust or peanuts, let alone the weird contortionists that used to give Cirque its quirky zing. It’s freak-free. Maybe that’s a good thing, too.
Through Oct. 8 at 1260 Sixth Ave. Information: +1-866-858-0008; http://www.ticketmaster.com Rating: *1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)