Cirque du Soleil’s stake in the Gotham holiday trade, “Wintuk,” is back at Madison Square Garden for a second outing. Show has undergone some retooling, but this tale of a boy in search of winter provides pretty much the same experience as last year. Even so, the sparkle is somewhat off the snowflake.
A boy wanders into a bleak cityscape — think Central Park, circa 1973 — and watches all the skaters, in-line bladers, trick bicyclers, rope-jumpers in fat suits, pickpockets and skateboarders. He watches them for nearly an hour, at which point — in one of the few lines of dialogue that is clear and intelligible — he says, “I wish it would snow, you know like when you were kids.”
After intermission, the boy and three companions are taken to what must be the West Pole — there’s no ice or wind here, and it’s peopled by what appear to be a tribe of Native Americans (consisting mostly of acrobats from the former Soviet Union). There’s also five shaggy (but not husky) dogs and a couple of pretty nifty birds, 14 feet tall with a 10-foot wingspan, from designer Michael Curry of “The Lion King.” The dogs sing, the birds don’t.
The boy watches more bladers, bicyclers, pickpockets and skateboarders, along with some not-warmly dressed gals descending on aerial straps. Cirque du Soleil has, in effect, wrapped the usual acts into a skimpy scenario, tacked on a winter theme to encourage holiday sales and let its marketing arm do the rest.
A great part of the 2007 edition’s charm came from the image of the young boy — seemingly an average, non-show-biz kid from the ‘burbs — thrust into a world of acrobats and clowns. Jamie (played by three 12-year-olds who alternated in the role) served as the perfect stand-in for kids in the audience, in effect taking them up there with him into the Cirque world.
This year’s Jamie (Darin Good) sports a blond wig and rosy-cheeked facepaint, just like the boy on the “Wintuk” ads plastered through the cavernous lobby. But if last year’s boy was 12, this one appears to be more than twice that. He’s short, yes, blond and cheery, but the illusion of a young Alex in Wonderland has vanished. Good does his job more than satisfactorily, but one gets the distinct impression he’s just another gymnast in another costume — which takes away some of the magic.
On the positive side, Gaspar Gimenez Facundo has happily returned as head clown, sort of a wimpy combination of Joel Grey and Pee-wee Herman who early on loses his pants and climbs into a trash can. Among the circus types, Alexandre Monteiro (who does a rather miraculous balancing job on the rola-bola) and Audrone Pavlociviene (a rag-doll act) are just as impressive on second viewing.
“Wintuk” has been outfitted with a live band this year, although the cavernous WaMu Theater demands such extreme amplification that the music sounds canned anyway. The stage has been augmented by a massive in-floor trampoline that seems to extend a full city block and surely cost a large chunk of the reported $7 million spent on this new edition.
The most exhilarating effect for the middle-schoolers in the audience at the performance reviewed was the wintry surprise built into the finale. Otherwise, their most wondrous moment came during intermission, when they discovered the concessionaire wandering the aisles with cotton candy was demanding $12 a cone.