Cirque du Soleil has long been looking for an accessible Manhattan home in which to weave its patented magic spell, as opposed to pitching a tent on some such outskirt as Randall’s Island. Madison Square Garden, for an even longer time, has been looking for a viable seasonal tenant for the large but unwieldy space that began life as the Felt Forum and now goes under the less-than-venerable name of WaMu Theater. This tentatively arranged marriage has resulted in a site-specific Cirque show about a lonely city boy in winter, called “Wintuk.” Happily for all, it’s a good one.
The WaMu’s immense 100-foot-wide stage space and unworkably low 20-foot height has made prior stage presentations seem flat and squat. Cirque du Soleil, however, has the ingenuity and resources to shrink — or, rather, elongate — to size. Here, the company gives us the theatrical equivalent of widescreen.
The opening act, for example, features eight acrobats, most of them on wheels. Place small hills 30 yards apart and a curved embankment at center, and voila! — the skateboarders and roller skaters are hurtling through space, filling up that formerly too-wide stage.
If that seems un-Cirque-like, the group also includes a fellow on a trial bike who starts, stops and pivots like a stallion, creating gulp-inducing thrills when he slams on the brakes with front wheel smack against someone’s nose.
Event is tied to the flimsiest of plots. A boy in a red winter coat (three children alternate in the role) roams the cityscape — a wide and lonely expanse with hints of Central Park — wishing for snow. That’s about it.
He finds two companions, a timid clown (Facundo Gimenez) who lives in a garbage can and what looks to be a bag lady (Angelica Norma) with a half-dozen man-sized, shaggy-dog puppets. There are also six full-sized lampposts that sing and move in the manner of those twisted crabapple trees on the road to Oz.
This might seem like a weak frame, but the hint of story is just enough to add a sense of character to the succession of circus acts. For example, the slack-rope walker (Jamie Adkins) becomes interesting to auds because a masked pickpocket in green — who wreaks havoc during the pre-show, running into the house and stealing boxes of popcorn — comes along and snatches his trousers right from under him.
The “rola-bola” man, Alexandre Monteiro, balances on an ever-increasing mound of cylinders; that he is there in the guise of a city maintenance worker trying to fix a short-circuited singing lamppost makes him something more than just another balancing act. And quite an amazing one, at that.
By dressing the acrobatic tumbler (Audrone Pavloviciene) as a rag doll, her act is triply enhanced; to begin with, many younger audience members wonder whether there’s an actual person in there, making those physically impossible moves.
For the second half, the boy, the clown, the bag lady and the dogs are transplanted to what seem to be arctic climes, bringing on several Russian circus acts. The poor lad keeps saying, “I want to see snow” — the dialogue in this show, unlike most Cirque efforts, is in good old, unvarnished English — so wistfully and so frequently one wonders how the wizards of Soleil can possibly make it pay off. They do; the snow effect, when it finally arrives, is of the knock-your-snowshoes-off variety.
“Wintuk” is not a show for those who look to Cirque for edgy, artsy and sexy new-age entertainment. This one — the Quebec-based outfit’s 21st offering, and the 14th presently on the boards worldwide — is family entertainment pure and simple, although artful enough to satisfy those without kids. Show is skedded for 10 weeks, with return engagements already on the books for 2008 through 2010. “Wintuk” should be a magnet for families and tourists and a big winner for all concerned.