The jack-in-the-box that starts all the trouble in Cirque du Soleil’s “Kooza” should come with dozens of warning labels. “Caution: May contain clowns,” for instance, or “Danger: Contents pose serious falling hazard to dozens of acrobats.” Created and directed by “Fool Moon” helmer David Shiner, the breathtaking show mixes wonderful clowning routines with sleight-of-hand, dance and some astonishing aerial stunts, including a “Wheel of Death” centerpiece that defies description. Cirque’s Gotham roost on Randall’s Island may keep “Kooza” from the kind of B.O. a Manhattan venue would provide, but auds who make the trek won’t be disappointed.
As usual, the clowns are already running amok in the audience before the official start of the show, from the beleaguered House Manager (Gordon White at the perf reviewed) to a postal worker with a huge box to deliver. Once everyone is settled in, we see a small man (the Innocent, played by Stephan Landry) sign for the box and open it, only to discover the Trickster (Adam Mike Tyus), a mischief-making wizard with a magic wand and a loud suit.
Trickster waves his wand at the Innocent’s drab costume and it instantly changes color (most things in this show look difficult; this gimmick looks impossible), as does the rest of the set. Curtains rise, a giant two-tiered stage wheels forward, and suddenly the Innocent’s grayish world is full of color and danger.
“Kooza” earns its first gasps with Yulia Korosteleva’s daring trapeze solo. With Seth Stachowski’s blazing guitar propelling her, she spins, flips and dives away from the little wooden rod as it swings across the length of the gigantic Grand Chapiteau stage. In every sense, Korosteleva sets the bar pretty high.
After a fun unicycle duet, we get our first look at the show’s main clown act, with White returning as the King (he arrives on a Ben Hur-style chariot equipped with a tiny urinal) and his two main accomplices from the pre-show (Christian Fitzharris and Jimmy Slonina) as semi-loyal subjects. Unlike previous Cirque clowns, these three goofballs are bawdy, verbal and amusingly violent, with White in particular outperforming the slightly aimless material.
The act closes with an amazing double-high-wire act that looks particularly dangerous — at the press perf, one performer tripped and caught himself bare-handed on the metal wire, swinging around and getting applause (and a worried “Are you OK?” from a fellow performer). Though he lost his hat in the act of staying aloft, he still managed to stand on a chair balanced on a pole held by two other guys riding bicycles across the wire.
But the danger is what makes the show so much fun to watch. After a Tim Burton-esque number with dozens of dancing skeletons and a natty-looking Death (the high point of a particularly beautiful set of costumes by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt), the scariest and best act descended from the ceiling: the Wheel of Death, a long contraption with a cage on either end that spins in a huge circle. As the performers spin faster, leap to the outsides of the cages and generally hang on for dear life, the 2,500-plus people in the audience hush almost completely, as if a stray sneeze might dislodge one of these guys and send him flying out into the house.
The second half of “Kooza” is by far the stronger, with the Wheel, an excellent pickpocket routine from Lee Thompson, and a couple of other scary scenarios (slightly dwarfed by the act’s big opener). Jean-Francois Cote’s music ranges from fun and funky to a little boring, with a notably weak score behind an incredible chair-balancing act.
Ultimately, though, any minor design quibbles take a back seat to the show’s laudable ingenuity. Shiner’s circus is always about the abilities of his performers, not the money spent on the production. As lovely as the costumes and Stephane Roy’s set are, the director always keeps the energetic cast front and center.
That proximity, by the way, is notably closer for a New York aud than in a 10,000-seat Vegas venue, so Randall’s Island may be the place to see “Kooza.” Cirque has made transportation a little easier, with a $5 round-trip bus fare. It’s a tremendously entertaining show with few arty pretensions, and at 2½ hours, it doesn’t stint on value for money.