For its first Southern California presentation in four years, Cirque du Soleil brings in a charmer of a show, “Corteo,” which has been on the road since its inception 2½ years ago. “Corteo” means funeral procession in Italian and, as explained by the ringleader at the start, this is a clown’s dream about his funeral filled with his big-top cohorts displaying their talents while celebrating his life. It’s a simple conceit, executed better in the first act than the second, yet the pacing of derring-do, comedy and synchronized acrobatics is some of Cirque’s best.
The death of a clown (Jeff Raz), think Pagliaci, not Bozo, attracts a Fellini-esque parade of familiar faces, who walk single file across the stage, the music moving from buoyant opera to slapstick. Four angels, who in the opening seg dance, spin and slither around three chandeliers with astounding grace, accompany the clown on his journey.
The angels (Christina Campolongo, Julie Dionne, Ana Luiza Rehder, Florence Tabary) watch over much of the procession of the acts, which include trampoline jumpers, men in hoops bringing Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” to life and a pair of horses for the angels to dance with.
Each act is lively without veering toward the ridiculous and as goofy as a human golf game is, it works splendidly as comic relief. Highlight of the first act is one of those ultra-simple Cirque moments: A tiny woman (Valentyna Pahlevanyan) is held aloft by four enormous balloons and, as she floats through the audience, patrons give her a push back toward the heavens as she lets out cries of enthusiam and apologies.
Second act is more muscular than the first, yet it lacks the first’s connective tissue. By the time it reaches a climax with a pair of rope dancers, there’s an overwhelming feeling that this has become a string of stunts and the sense of a funeral has drifted away.
The acts, taken individually, reach extraordinary levels, especially the opener “Paradise,” which features trapeze artists working at a frenzied pace and tossing each other around like ragdolls. Second act also boasts an impressive ladder balancing act by Uzeyer Novrusov and an expertly timed gymnastic routine involving a half-dozen parallel bars and 16 actor-athletes.
Pahlevanyan returns for a mishap-laden reading of “Romeo & Juliet” and a more serious ballet routine; she’s a joy to watch in each of her roles.
Raz plays the Dead Clown as a weary traveler, a man who displays the wear and tear of his profession in his face, his posture and his walk. He appears to long for the simple things — a whistled aria, a bicycle ride, a waltz — and when he speaks up, he’s a straight-shooter with no time for hemming and hawing or even playing nice. As he disappers into the night, he has gently yet viscerally connected with the audience; it’s sad to seem him go.
Daniele Finzi Pasca has this ensemble finely tuned and centered. Unlike other Cirque shows, the eye knows where to focus in “Corteo” and that alone helps it to stand out from its brethren. Dominique Lemieux’s costumes are subdued yet enticing, drawing inspiration from David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” character, Victoria’s Secret, “Les Miserables” and court jesters.
Music is at least varied in this outing, hitting a highpoint when tablas are used to provide a distinct and snappy rhythm for the trapeze act. A violinist gets a showy turn and some whistling is mighty impressive, but when a choir sings — and they do too often — not a word is decipherable.