Circque du Soleil’s Kurios; The Bridges of Madison County: The Broadway Musical
By Myron Meisel
Photo by Martin Girard/shootstudio.ca; costumes by Philippe Guillotel
You already know that this latest touring show from Cirque du Soleil is sensational, because they always are (albeit not so with their far less ambitious installation shows in Las Vegas). The individual acts of acrobatics, high-art vaudeville (best yo-yo routine ever!), and even — against all odds — the clown routines, invariably maintain the highest standards of excellence, not to mention deliver dazzling excitement.
Europeans have always regarded circus performers as artists, and in a quarter-century, Cirque du Soleil has resolutely expunged American popular culture’s condescending insistence on the form’s tawdriness and freakishness. Critical to this changing perception have been an emphasis on roots in street performance rather than carnival hucksterism (though the corporate Cirque has itself evolving into a contemporary marketing juggernaut of branded ballyhoo) and the pointed elimination of the innately cruel deployment of “trained” animal acts. (All animals appearing in the show happen to be invisible.)
However, the secret weapon that truly elevates the Cirque beyond mere jaw-dropping extravaganza remains its resolutely ingenious showmanship, anchored by an unstinting commitment to create a meaningful context for all its dexterous derring-do through a fully realized and consistent theatrical vision. Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities isn’t just gorgeously detailed in its design, it fashions a fanciful arena of imagination in which the physical stunts and gags explode organically from a world in which defiance of the laws of nature becomes an expression of human capacities for innovation and invention.
Writer-director Michel Laprise (together with his peerless team of “Director of Creation” Chantal Tremblay, sets and props designer Stéphane Roy, and costume designer Philippe Guillotel) have crafted a world of contradictory elements, drawing fundamentally on the Industrial Era of steam, predating the internal-combustion engine, mixing and mismatching 19th century mechanical elements with early 20th century aesthetics and a postmodern sensibility of appropriated nostalgia.
It draws candidly on the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Jan Svankmejer and the Quay Brothers, references Pere Ubu sans Alfred Jarry’s disgust, borrows on Bauhaus, and invokes a present as a junkyard of detritus of the past as pioneered by the Mad Max movies. (I suppose the fountainhead for the trope’s entry into popular consciousness was that retro-opening title crawl in the original Star Wars that repositioned the traditional futurism of science fiction occurring instead “a long time ago”.)
Yet rather than apocalyptic despair, Kurios captures an optimism, and perhaps a faux innocence, characteristic of the early machine age, or the cusp of any transformative technology before its souring effect on society sinks in. The sense that anything is possible with the limitless capabilities of the human mind, and concomitantly, with the disciplined human body, allows us to delight not merely at flying through the air or delirious contortions or elaborate feats of graceful movement, but also at the suggested liberation of mind and spirit otherwise submerged within.
Comparisons being odious if inevitable, Kurios hasn’t quite the rigor and concentration of last year’s arrival, Robert LePage’s Totem; it might revel overmuch in its gleeful blitheness about its internal contradictions of styles and references. Still, in the moment of each awestruck thrill after aesthetic enchantment, it matters only that the dumbfounding death-defying feats transcend simple wonder to make an eloquent connection for each of us with the miracle of human possibility that survives so much cause for anxiety.
Not so Curious
Andrew Samonsky and Elizabeth Stanley in The Bridges of Madison County(photo by Matthew Murphy)
A runaway bestseller like Robert James Waller’s romantic novel, The Bridges of Madison County, must be irresistible to adapt to more popular media. What’s intriguing is that both as a movie, and now as a Broadway musical, first-rank creative talent have been enticed to tackle the purplish passion as a challenging technical exercise. Clint Eastwood and Richard LaGravenese aged the characters upward and applied a spare restraint to the emotional excesses, accented by a cunning use of locations and lenses. Here, instead, composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown (a three-time Tony winner) and book writer Marsha Norman (a Pulitzer for ‘night, Mother and a Tony for The Secret Garden) expand the lovers’ world to incorporate what had previously only been suggested: Francesca’s family; her backstory as an Italian war bride (with a beloved fiancé lost in action); and the social fabric of the rural community.
These are all apt, even essential, elements to transform the bubble of a four-day affair into a musical that must dramatize the inner conflict overwhelming the lonely and unfulfilled Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley). Left alone on the Iowa farm in 1965 while her husband and children bring the elder daughter’s prize steer to the 4-H nationals in Indianapolis, Francesca is swept away by the handsome stranger passing through, National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Andrew Samonsky). The farm may be remote, but the community is tight-knit: everyone knows everyone’s business, and Francesca remains continually aware that her indiscretions are far from secret, although surprisingly free of censure for the period.
All these changes enable appropriate opportunities for song, and Brown responds with invariably melodic showpieces far lusher than his customarily lapidary work, sung, particularly by Stanley, in gorgeous voice. Yet as agreeable as the tunes may be in passing, none stick beyond the narrative function to the moment, inarguably not up to the standards of his enduringly fine work (Parade, The Last Five Years, Songs for a New World). Similarly, ace director of musicals Barlett Sher (South Pacific, The King and I) applies his trademark designing eye and penchant for spare, evocative blocking to animate as much emotion as practicable without degenerating into bathos.
But nothing suffices to surmount the shortcomings of the source material. Norman turns the novel’s omniscience inside out, centering the story entirely through Francesca’s experience, which makes the drama more frankly feminist and salubriously aware, and the conflicts more pronounced, yet ultimately no less standard-issue (invocations of Our Town are not flattering). One of the inherent hurdles that must be overcome is that the quickie liaison has to be sufficiently drawn out to slow its rush to consummation lest Francesca appear — particularly in period terms — to be too “easy.” The affair must at all costs present itself as the height of mutual sincerity and irresistible affinity. I’m far from sure that could be made entirely credible in 1965 (though it might have in a Broadway musical). The odds fifty years on, even looking backward, are far longer.
And for all the sentiment enhanced by exploring the dimensions of Francesca’s experience, Robert recedes into a nearly complete enigma, characterized solely by his contrasts — his adventurous, solitary lifestyle, his buffness, his attentive sensitivity. Beyond those attributes perceived by Francesca, he’s a cipher. For all their unassailable rapport and mutual need, one can’t escape the inference that the grandness of their passion survives through the succeeding years almost entirely because they didn’t spend enough time together to begin get on one another’s nerves.
A minor irritant for this correspondent: I spent some time in not dissimilar heartland America during this pre-Summer of Love, sporting longish hair and a beard, and can attest that awareness of “hippies” had certainly not yet penetrated to local lexicons through mass media. Everyone called me a “beatnik”, doubtless thanks to Maynard G. Krebs.
Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities, Cirque du Soleil at Dodger Stadium, 1000 Elysian Park Ave., Echo Park; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4:30 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1:30 p.m. & 5:30 p.m.; through February 7. (877) 924-7783, cirquedusoleil.com Running time: Two hours, 25 minutes.
The Bridges of Madison County: The Broadway Musical, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntn; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m.; through January 17. (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup. Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes.