Cirque du Soleil’s newest offering, “Corteo,” spots the usual circus acts within the showcase of a clown’s funeral. (“Corteo” is Italian for funeral procession.) But there’s nothing funereal in the proceedings. “Cry,” the ringmaster keeps imploring the audience. “This is supposed to be a funeral!” There’s no crying or audience malaise in evidence, just laughter, chills and all-around amazement. Send in the clowns, especially when they’re this good.
If your last Cirque visit was to one of those extravaganzas of dazzling images set to new-age music in seemingly endless repetition, have no fear: “Corteo” is a grand show with enough high spots to enthrall adults and tykes alike. Director-creator Daniele Finzi Pasca, the Swiss-born founder of Teatro Sunil, seamlessly blends circus and theater. (Pasca’s “Rain,” a Cirque Eloize production that visited the New Victory last summer, is up for three Drama Desk Awards, including director of a musical.)
“Corteo” is the journey of a dead clown (the highly entertaining Mauro Mozzani), with farewell perfs from his friends and colleagues. Thus, we get a reasonably interwoven evening with recurring characters rather than just a succession of aerialists and trapeze walkers.
Designer Jean Rabasse’s hundred-foot-long stage splits the big top like a clock face at 6 p.m. The rise of the curtain provides a striking image, revealing a complete, duplicate audience across the way. Costume designer Dominique Lemieux does an impressive job, constantly reminding us that the 41 performers are in a show, rather than disconnected specialty acts.
Combined with Martin Labrecque’s effective lighting, this is a Fellini-esque circus, with real clowns. There are no animals except a pair of two-person horses who clown around and — when someone sits on them — split in half. Oh, and there’s a second-act spot where the rhythmic gymnasts are unaccountably bombarded from above with rubber chickens.
Highlights are numerous, including acrobats on oversized trampoline beds, with precarious balancing on the headboards; a high-wire walker in red (Anastasia Bykovskaya) who does her act barefoot, en pointe and on a unicycle, ending with a diagonal walk to the roof; five pairs of shoes that scurry across the long stage as part of the funeral procession; and a juggling act climaxing with one fellow walking across the heads of two others while all three juggle bowling pins.
The second act starts with an especially impressive group of aerialists, then lags for a bit too long. Things pick up with a fellow climbing a one-sided ladder while coping with radio-controlled miniature towers crisscrossing beneath him, looking like little Eiffels with winking lights on top. After he climbs past nose-bleed height, an angel brings him a rope and they fly off as the ladder crashes.
The so-called Helium Dance is a real crowd-pleaser. Diminutive Valentyna Pahlevanyan (she’s 2 foot 5) is strapped to six helium balloons and wafted across the footlights like a beach ball, bouncing from row to row. “Please send her back to me,” Morrani calls out, then wafts Pahlevanyan over to play with the other half of the audience. Peter Pan will never seem the same.
Festivities end with Morrani bicycling off to heaven, looking like Margaret Hamilton fleeing the tornado in “The Wizard of Oz.”
The entire cast was smiling away all evening, as if simply thrilled to be with us for their sixth performance in a 49-hour span. After a two-month run, show moves on to Chicago, Boston and D.C.
In New York it’s all about location, and that remains the Cirque’s local sticking point. Its comfortably appointed touring tent, pitched on Randall’s Island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, is not all that difficult to reach provided you have a car or driver. (Bus connections are theoretically possible.) But the whereabouts of Randall’s is a mystery to most New Yorkers; maybe they should advertise “just under the Triboro Bridge”?