It almost makes you nostalgic for the bad old days when carnies were carnies — the sawdust-smelling, animal-exploiting, itinerant tent trash who’d never dream of signing up for mime school or an interpretive dance class. The circus as high-tech, new age musical spectacular is now so ubiquitous it’s hard not to glaze over at the pyramids of rubber-spined contortionists, the human wheels or rippling towers of handstanding beefcake. But audiences still eager to “ooh” and “aah” at those sights can get their fill of luridly costumed acrobatics in “Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy,” playing a 10-week summer engagement at the Broadway Theater.
Those of us immune to the fascination of Cirque du Soleil’s reinvented circus-theater model share relief in the fact that venue logistics have kept that international virus partly quarantined in Vegas, getting no closer to the Rialto than Madison Square Garden or a temporary bigtop on Randall’s Island.
Surprisingly, the first such company to infiltrate Broadway is not the Montreal-based titan but Cirque Prods., a South Florida touring operation founded in 1993, which won a six-year legal battle to use the French word “cirque” on its Euro-style shows. Created by artistic director Neil Goldberg, the company’s productions have played casinos, resort hotels, theme parks and corporate events, while “Jungle Fantasy” has been touring large-scale venues in the U.S. since last year.
The title sounds like an allergy-inducing Roberto Cavalli perfume in animal-print packaging, and the overproduced show is just as subtle.
There’s no narrative thread, but within a crowded frame of gnarled vines and thick foliage, a boyishly charming jungle adventurer (Marcello Balestracci) is lured into a fantastical world of flora and fauna by Mother Nature (Jill Diane). She sings generic inspirational lyrics like “Nature will set you free” or “Watch and you will see your inner self come to be,” usually accompanied by a character billed as Soultree (Jared Burnett), a Fabio copycat sawing furiously on an electric violin, his sculpted torso and oiled tresses emerging from a tree trunk.
The interchangeable songs by Cirque Prods. musical director Jill Winters have titles like “Eyes Wide Open,” “You Can Grow Too,” “Courage” and “Strange Things,” but their words are pure nonsense. With vocalist Diane cranking up the dark sensuality and fierce enunciation in apparent homage to Shirley Bassey’s Bond themes, it’s merciful that long stretches of lyrics are incomprehensible over the disco-Muzak-meets-funked-up-faux-classical score.
The multinational acts themselves are the usual assortment from the arty alternative-circus repertoire. “Jungle Fantasy” is not as pretentious as the worst of Cirque du Soleil, but it’s not as sophisticated either; the key word here is “busy.”
There are clowning caterpillars in a whirl of multiple jump ropes; an impossibly elastic quartet of Mongolian contortionists dressed as lizards; spinning aerialists, including one who hangs by her hair (which can’t be good for the follicles); vine-swinging Ukrainian muscle boys; a dexterous juggling frog; strapping Russian lions hoisting each other in virtuoso strongman displays; and a pair of balancing giraffes, from Russia and Moldova, who show impressive poise while teetering on a stack of coffee tables atop a rolling cylinder. Don’t try this at Ikea.
Director Goldberg threads the accomplished acts together by having the animal ensemble wander on and off at random intervals. But the three-ring circus tradition of simultaneous acts works less efficiently on a proscenium stage.
Often the effect is of chaotic overkill when the main attraction is competing for focus with cancan-dancing bees, bustier-clad zebras, faux-balletic butterflies, goofy emus, a unicorn or even the versatile antics of Balestracci, who gets in on most of the acts. Not to mention tiresome Mother Nature, slinking around like a refugee from some high-art drag show.
Much is made in press materials of the show’s more than 150 costumes and elaborate visual effects (act one depicts the jungle by day; act two by night, leaning heavily on black-light tricks). But there’s little that could be called truly inventive here, and repetitiveness sets in well before the two hours are up.
While summer tourist traffic looking for unchallenging family fare may eat it up, Broadway regulars are likely to respond by borrowing a line from that arbiter of taste, Miss Jean Brodie: “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”