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A CurtainUp Review

Zarkana's New and Improved Return Engagement
By Simon Saltzman

Original Review
A magic act has apparently transformed the Cirque du Soleil’s mammoth circus spectacle Zarkana, now playing a return (summer-only) engagement at the Radio City Music Hall from a good show into a great show. Credit for the transformation goes either to Francois Girard, who has written and directed this as well as last year’s show or to Christian Goguen, the actor now playing the role of Zark, the magician. My guess is that it is Girard who had made the many improvements, particularly subduing the nightmarish qualities. Except for Goguen, many of the performers are the same, but they are presented in a more palatable and less spooky context than had previously embraced them in this great hall.

Now a half hour shorter than previously and without an intermission, Zarkana now moves swiftly, humorously and certainly awesomely from one circus act to another for a terrific non-stop ninety minutes. If most of the previous and certainly spectacular trappings are back, they happily don’t, as they appeared to do last year, deflect our attention away from the performers. Almost doing a disappearing act is the dense and confusing thread (call it a threat) of a plot that concerns Zark (Goguen) a crazed magician who looses his magic as well as his lady love, although he still makes a surreal journey through a dreamscape unlike anything you could have imagined.

Some people may feel inclined to cringe at the sight of a woman transformed into a baby with a grotesquely large head and six hands floating about and gulping in a large fish bowl while others might cringe at the sound of a shrieking snake woman writhing in a snake pit. They may be truly bizarre, but they are also the kind of touches that a typical Cirque du Soleil show is noted. The magician still has a formidable presence but he is much more personable. No longer overly burdened with an English text and a set of lyrics (to undistinguished music) that no one was ever expected to understand, he now bellows forth, but just as unintelligibly, in what is now called “cirque” language.

Without a free program to guide me (or anyone), I am assuming that the production team is the same and can be praised for once again framing the acts so imaginatively. Notwithstanding the slightly protracted mood-setting prologue, the show gets off to a swift start with a charming red-haired juggler (Maria Choodu), and maintains its pace and momentum with breath-taking feats by aerialists, high wire, and tumbling teams and a pair (Carlos Marin, Junior Delgado) of daredevils who race and leap about on something called “The Wheel of Death.”

A bit of a lag comes with the sand-designing artistry of Erika Chen and with the obligatory silly shtick that you expect from a pair of (more endearing than usual) clowns. A grand finale in the grand Radio City Music Hall tradition brings the entire company of 75 descending a splendid staircase waving brilliant flags and filling the hydraulic lifts on this great stage in their colorful costumes. The approval of the capacity audience was notable. This is the perfect entertainment for anyone who can’t understand English, or for that matter Cirque-speak. You simply have to look ahead and also above (Spidey eat your heart out) and be dazzled.

I had the pleasure of having as my companion an American cousin who was raised in Cairo and had never been to New York City or a Broadway show. To say that he was impressed with Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall is an understatement.

Currten Production Notes Same as last year, with rnning time 1 hour 30 minutes no intermission
Tickets ($59.00 - $125.00)
Performances: Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 3 PM and 8 PM; Sundays at 2 PM and 7 PM; Wednesday matinees at 2 PM.
From: 06/16/12 Ends 09/02/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 06/16/12

Original Review by Elyse Sommer
Zarkana Inspires Memories of a Former Radio City Music Hall Usher
Who wants to see the stars? Who wants to cross the ocean?.— So sings magician whose quest for his lost love and lost magical powers drives his filled with acrobatic magic journey.
Cassiope in her Spider Lady persona
It's natural enough for the organization which grew from a group of 20 street performers in 1984 to the international entertainment behemoth known as Cirque du Soleil whose 5000 employees include more than 1200 performers from almost 50 countries, to reach for the stars. Cirque's visits to New York began with circus tent productions away from the Big Apple mainstream, but have in recent years made a bid to be part of the city's theater scene. Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy ran at the Broadway Theater (review). Their Off-Broadway venture at the Beacon Theater, Banana Shpeel, was a misfire. But, undeterred by that one flop, Cirque is back with Zarkana, its biggest show ever. The venue this time is one of New York's architectural treasures associated with spectacular entertainment, Radio City Music Hall.

This huge endeavor takes Cirque to a whole level, with an investment of almost as many millions as the newsmaking musical Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark . As the creator and director of Spider-Man envisioned a musical with elements of a circus (performers flying to the top of the stage and all the way into the theater), so the creative aim of Zarkana to align itself with musical theater by adding a story line revolving around two performers who are singers rather than circus performance artists, and yet build the stories they tell around the spectacular physical acts that have made Cirque a Wow entertainment. Like Spider-Man's creator and eventually sidelined director Julie Taymor, Zarkana's writer/ director François Girard, is a visionary whose ideas are operatic (he comes to Cirque from the opera and film worlds). He has envisioned Zarkana as a rock-opera that blends circus art with the surreal. As he sees Zarkana, is a rock-opera that blends circus art with the surreal.

Given that Zarc (tall, dark, handsome and strong-voiced Canadian pop star Garou) the hero of Girard's narrative is a magician, it's easy to see that the idea of building the narrative around his surreal journey to regain his lost love and, with it, his lost magic is a viable link for marrying Mr. Girard's story to the Cirque's world of superlative physicality. And so it does.

Line Tremblay, the show's director of creation and set and props designer Stephane Roy have outdone themselves in marrying the magic of the eye-popping juggling, high wire and other gasp-inducing acts with the grandeur of the Radio City stage. The stage is hand painted and to downplay its vastness, is framed with three variously decorated arches and the back wall is studded with LED's for some amazing video work. Amazing too are Alain Lortie's lighting and Alan Hirantelj's costumes. In fact everything about this production is visually enthralling and it's fun to see the clowns' shenanigans spill into the aisles and side of the theater, and even make use of the famous Music Hall organs.

At the risk of too many comparisons to Spider-Man's much publicized problems, however, Mr. Girard's narrative is as confusing as Ms. Taymor's original book. Zarc's lost love Lia and the "mutant ladies" he encounters in his other worldly journey are all gorgeously embodied by Cassiopée, an opera trained Canadian metal band singer. One of her roles is as a Spider Lady, who unlike Reeve Carney's Spider-Man over at the Hilton does have a web to spin around in. She even sings upside down and while she's spinning and singing, we also see a group of flying acrobats.

Mind bogglingly accomplished and happily glitch free as the performers flying leaps and acrobatic acts are, Radio City Music Hall is magnificent but too distancing to allow any really intimate connection with the performers. Except for the second act's "Wheel of Death" number for which a special flying machine was built, it's a bit like gazing into a giant version of one of those glass balls in which scenes whirl around in a shower of snow. There's always that glass between you and the inside of that ball.

Interestingly, for all the acrobatic and design bells and whistles, the most memorable scene is second act's opening numbe,r "Sand Painting," in which Erika Chen (also a non-acrobat) is inside a giant vase on stage which is projected and enlarged in a frame further upstage where we see her fingers and nails create striking images. It's a bit like one of those I-Pad painting apps but nevertheless gorgeous and deeply engaging.

As for the musical score, Zarkana like Spider-Man would probably have been more musically satisfying if composed by Elton John with whom composer/musical director Nick Littlemore has worked (According to some of Cirque's press information Littlemore was guided by Sir Elton while working on the show). For the most part the music is too jarringly electronic, monotonous and over-amplified. Consequently, with the exception of a number where Garou is accompanied by two grand pianos, the lyrics tend to be muffled.

The lack of emotional engagement may not be a problem to people who prefer Facebook and other cyber friendships to more personal connections. And the fuzzy story line and weak score, notwithstanding, this is, as Simon Saltzman explains in his trip down memory lane, Zarkana is the sort of spectacle entertainment that Radio City Music Hall was designed for and that make seeing a show there a special experience. And as even the revised Spider-Man Turn of the Dark still had critics quibbling, the show is doing very well at the box office and the combination of Cirque du Soleil's popularity and Radio City's durability as a must-see New York landmark, Zarkana is likely keep most of those 6000 seats filled for its 4-month run -- and maybe even become an annual event.

In case you're wondering about that title. You won't find the word Zarkana in the dictionary. But according to the press releases it's a fusion of the words "bizarre" and "arcana", arcana meaning "mystery" or "secret."
Zarkana Inspires Memories of a Former Radio City Music Hall Usher

Radio City Usher
Our usher-author at left lining up for duty in1958
The opening of Zarkana was not just "another opening of another show" (apology to Cole Porter) for this former usher at the world's greatest and largest theater. Given landmark status in 1973, the Music Hall was delivered from demolition at the eleventh hour just 33 years ago. Every visit since then has brought back a rush of memories of me standing at attention at the top of an aisle ready to escort a patron to a seat and prepared to answer any number of questions that would be asked by the many visitors and tourists who would come to "the showplace of the nation."

The facts about this stunning Art Deco masterpiece were studiously put to memory as part of an usher's training, as was learning various hand-signals used by the ushers and management for communicating. We stretched the truth a bit by telling patrons that there were 6,200 seats when in fact there were only 5,933. Jog my memory a bit and I can not only remember much of the dialogue from every film that played while I was there, but also details of the accompanying stage shows.

During the summer of 1958, I first put on the sharp grey expertly tailored uniform. Attending day classes at Pace College allowed me to work part-time and evenings. Here I was working in the very theater where as a five year-old my parents took me to see Lassie Come Home and where I was first introduced to the glorious sound of a 70-member symphony orchestra under the baton of Raymond Paige, a resident corps de ballet and choral ensemble and, best of all, to the precision dancing of the world famous Rockettes. The Music Hall has been and remains my favorite theater.

My ushering days were during the late 1950s, the last of this theater's golden years when patrons could see a major film and a spectacular stage show by arriving anytime during the day and taking any seat that was available. During peak periods, patrons could be seen lining up down 50th Street and wrapping around the entire block, often waiting up to three hours, the length of one complete show. For many years, the cost of a seat didn't exceed $2.00 (a little higher for reserved seats in the first mezzanine) and you could see a complete show for less than $1.00 if you arrived before noon.

My usherng began with a forgettable comedy The Reluctant Debutante with Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall (based on a forgettable stage comedy) on screen but an unforgettable stage show set in the Gardens of Versailles that featured not only an electrical fireworks display but an amazing display of Dancing Waters. I was so distracted by the stage show, that the head usher, seeing my head turned toward the stage, immediately told me to report to the captain on the third mezzanine where I stood for the rest of the evening in some remote location.

As luck would have it, I was back inside for the seven-week run of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a film that virtually demanded one to memorize every one of Tennessee Williams' snappy and insinuating lines. The stage show featured the ballet company in Ravel's La Valse. It was an era of great film dialogue and the bon mots that flowed freely through Auntie Mame starring Rosalind Russell will live with me forever such as Miss Gooch remarking to young Patrick Dennis upon entering Mame's grandiose apartment, "It looks like the rest room of the Oriental Theater (pronounced theee-ater.") The stage shows often boasted over 100 performers. One Easter show actually smelled good. In addition to the annual Glory of Easter pageant with the stage filled with a procession of nuns carrying bouquets of white lilies within a glorious cathedral setting was revue that ended in a "Spring Garden" during which perfume (don't ask which brand) was generously pumped through the air-conditioning ducts. .

Life happens and it was many years after my usher days that I was on hand for the April 12, 1978 show that was to be Radio City MusicHall's finale. A capacity audience had just finished giving the Rockettes a thunderous ovation, a farewell that we all thought was the last hurrah for the thirty six world famous precision dancers. Then, quite unexpectedly, a spokesperson for the Mayor of New York came on stage and announced "Ladies and gentlemen, the Radio City Music Hall has been saved." The magnificent theater had within the past hour been given a formal government reprieve, thanks to the dedication and devotion of individuals, groups, preservationists and activists from across the country whose petitions had been heard. Raymond Bohr and John Detroy at the twin Wurlitzsers played the rousing exit music for a rejoicing audience.

The Music Hall no longer shows films, but is now a successful concert hall. In deference to its past glory, a 90 minute Christmas Spectacular continues to enthrall audiences. A seven-month restoration back to its former glory was completed in 1999.

What a perfect venue forZarkana, a show that has been designed to dazzle our senses. And what a great opportunity to once again experience the wonder of this theater as well as to see an entertainment that is able to make full use of its still incomparable (since 1932) stage effects. The feeling of awe never leaves you no matter how many times you may have walked into the grand foyer noted for Ezra Winter's huge mural The Fountain of Youth that hangs directly above the first landing of the grand staircase leading to the first of the theater's three mezzanines.

Waiting for the great contour curtain to rise on Zarkana, I was once again awed by the golden sunrise effect created by interior designer Donald Deskey that extends from the arched proscenium in subtly widening sections into the auditorium to emulate the rays of the sun. This effect is further enhanced by the gracefully tiered choral staircases on each side of the auditorium. It was wonderful to see them used by the Zarkana performers as it creates the illusion of being closer to the stage. How nice that two of Zarkana's clowns were given the opportunity to play a bit on the twin Wurlitzer organ consoles. Zarkana is exactly the kind of spectacular and diverting show for which the Radio City Music Hall was created.

Cirque du Soleil a
Written and directed by François Girard.
Cast of 75+ internatonal artists, headed by Garou as Zark
Artistic Guide: Guy Laliberté
Director of Creation: Line Tremblay
Set and Props Designer: Stéphane Roy
Costume Designer: Alan Hranitelj
Composer and Musical Director: Nick Littlemore
Choreographers: Debra Brown and Elena Kolyadenko
Lighting Designer: Alain Lortie
Raymond St-Jean Image Content Designer:
Sound Designer: Steven Dubuc
Acrobatic Performance Designer: Florence Pot
Rigging and Acrobatic Equipment Designer: Danny Zen
Makeup Designer: Eleni Uranis
Running Time: Approx 2 hours plus intermission
at Radio City Music Hall From 6/09/11; opening 6/29/11; closing 10/08/11. Tickets from $47 to $130 . or at
Tuesday through Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8 pm; Sundays at 2pm and 7 pm. Wednesday matinees at 2 pm begin July 13
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 6/24/11 press preview
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