Review: ‘Kooza’

A comparatively simple, straight-up circus-y affair by Cirque du Soleil standards, "Kooza" has little in the way of highfalutin concept -- just one crowd-pleasing act after another, beautifully packaged.

A comparatively simple, straight-up circus-y affair by Cirque du Soleil standards, “Kooza” has little in the way of highfalutin concept — just one crowd-pleasing act after another, beautifully packaged. Premiered in Canada last year, the show kicks off its U.S. tour with a 10-week San Francisco gig and should mint money from old and new fans alike.

Writer-director David Shiner, a Broadway (“Fool Moon,” “Seussical”) and circus veteran, has given “Kooza” a back-to-basics flavor that — allowing for Cirque’s usual upscale aesthetics and technology — emphasizes traditional clowning and acrobatic derring-do over thematic or narrative aspirations. The result may be less memorable as an organic whole than some prior shows, but moment-to-moment, it’s a delight, free from the too-twee or pretentious elements that occasionally marred more conceptually lofty Cirque evenings.

Closest thing to a connective thread here is puckish, childlike “Innocent” (Stephan Landry) receiving a jack-in-the-box, which turns into the slightly sinister Trickster (Jason Berrent), who draws our naif into an alternative universe of … well, circus stuff.

Highlights include a graceful unicycle duet, a hair-raising high-wire quartet and the ensemble Charivari’s climactic Teeter Board leaps. But the most squeal-inducing jawdropper is the netless, neck-risking “Wheel of Death,” in which two horned daredevils (Jimmy Ibarra Zapata, Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza) defy gravity while hurtling around, inside and outside a giant, gleaming contraption that rotates two steel spheres.

Dressed like a ’70s lounge lizard, Michael Halvarson does a comedy “magic” routine that seems shaky until one realizes he’s stealthily pickpocketing every last item from the oblivious volunteer’s person. The clown trio of Gordon White, Christian Fitzharris and Joshua Zehner do entertaining audience-participation routines throughout, the most startling gag — particularly for its victim — being the sudden elevation of one screaming patron’s seat, like a berserk barbershop chair. Slightly rude tenor of the humor encompasses a big, hairy “Bad Dog” (Vitali Charsunou) who at one point relieves himself mightily in the aisle.

This is a Cirque show low on the usual cheese/beefcake — only barely clad Zhang Gongli, balancing atop a 23-foot tower of chairs, provides a major dose of the Body Beautiful. (And his segment, the night’s slowest, is more ethereal than sexy.)

Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt’s costumes are a big plus, never moreso than when clinching Anthony Gatto’s juggling routine by clothing him neck-to-toe in the sartorial equivalent of a disco ball. She also dresses a contortionist trio (Julie Bergez, Natasha Patterson, Dasha Sovik) so their extreme bendings achieve a handsome sculptural rather than grotesque effect.

Score is mostly rock and funk-oriented, with occasional Arabic or Spanish fillips; chanteuse Tara Baswani sings mostly wordless vocals from a giant, ornate rolling bandstand. All other design and tech contribs are, as usual, first-class.


Grand Chapiteau, San Francisco; 2,550 Seats; $90 Top


A Cirque du Soleil presentation of a show in two acts, written and directed by David Shiner, with original music by Jean-Francois Cote.


Set, Stephane Roy; costumes, Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt; lighting, Martin Labrecque; sound, Jonathan Deans, Leon Rothenberg; choreography, Clarence Ford; props, Roge Francoeur; makeup, Florence Cornet; acrobatic performance design, Andre Simard. Opened, reviewed Nov. 16, 2007. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.


With: Diana Aleshchenko, Christopher Bailey, Theresa Bailey, Dima Bareika, Tara Baswani, Yoann Benhamou, Julie Bergez, Jason Berrent, Ganjuur Boldbaatar, Crystel Bujold, Vitali Charsunou, Andriy Chupryna, Christian Fitzharris, Anthony Gatto, Danielle Gatto, Michael Halvarson, Jimmy Ibarra Zapata, Jarrod Kaplan, Rustam Karimov, Vladimir Kuznetsov, Yuriy Kuznetsov, Stephan Landry, Corine Latreille, Jean-Louis Locas, James Lutz, Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza, Sergey Nazarov, Vanessa Outreville, Natasha Patterson, Alexandre Sasha Pozoniakov, Pavel Pozonyakov, Angel Quiros Dominguez, Robert Quiros Dominguez, Vincente Quiros Dominguez, Miron Rafajlovic, Flouber Sanchez, Yury Shavro, Jacob Skeffington, Dasha Sovik, Seth Stachowski, Marina Tikhonenko, Irina Timofeeva, Alexey Turchenko, Angel Villarejo Dominguez, Darya Vintilova, Rachel Walker, Gordon White, Joshua Ryan Zehner, Zhang Gongli, Zhou Pingi.
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