Having pitched its tent at various spots in Manhattan and on Randall’s Island, Quebec-based Cirque du Soleil — with some 20 extravaganzas presently trotting across four continents — has taken over the venerable Radio City Music Hall for a four-month engagement of its newest creation, “Zarkana.” Described as “an acrobatic rock opera,” the show is strong on acrobatics, at least; if there’s a rock opera on that stage, it’s hidden beneath the trappings, muffled by the indecipherable sound and displaced by the impressive folks on the flying trapeze.
Some of the circus acts are, indeed, astounding; unfortunately, they’ve put them all in the second stanza. These segs include a decidedly non-acrobatic but fascinating sand-painting act by Erika Chen, who works wonders on a light box while her work is projected on a large screen above the stage. This is followed by a grand trapeze act which takes up the full stage — and Radio City has an especially large stage — and includes, to my count, some 15 death-defying leaps and lunges.
Then comes something called the Wheel of Death, a large apparatus which revolves high above the stage. Two fellows (Ray Navas Velez, Rudy Navas Velez) run circles within two big wheels until one of them slips out, jumping and leaping through midair with only gravity to catch him. And does it again and again. The show ends with fifteen acrobats tumbling on the stage floor, and the final trick is one of the best of the evening: A girl cannonballs up onto the shoulders of a man who is standing on the shoulders of another man, who is standing on the shoulders of yet another man.
But this is all after intermission. The show starts with a juggler (Maria Choodu) playing with what look like yellow tennis balls. A very good juggler, and a very good act, except that she’s standing up there in the middle of the 100-foot-plus Radio City stage. “Zarkana” tries to fill the place, but many of the acts can barely be seen from the center of the orchestra section, and one can only imagine what they look like from the third mezz.
Many of the acts are backed by clowns in white engaged in diverse activities, often augmented by enormous projections of writhing snakes or bloodshot eyeballs. Not surprisingly, all these extra-curriculars only serve to make the featured acts look tinier. There is also a disembodied embryo in a globe of water that occasionally chimes in.
The souvenir program tells us that “Zarkana” is about a magician named Zark on a quest to find his lost love and lost powers. There is a big fellow in a red cape and red hat who sings a lot of gibberish; that must be him. Although not clearly identified, this is French-Canadian recording star Garou; his gal is the similarly one-named Cassiopee.
Unlike other Cirque shows, the unintelligible lyrics are apparently written in English. Music is by Nick Littlefield, with an enigmatic smallprint credit reading “Musical Consultant, Sir Elton John.” There are also two star clowns, one short and one tall, who are resolutely and repeatedly unfunny.
Show is reportedly budgeted at $50 million, which is a veritable bargain compared to that other flying rock-circus over on 42nd Street, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” The Cirque aerialists provide a far more exciting display than the men in blue-and-red spider-costumes, but for much of its playing time, “Zarkana” is slow going.