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Cirque du Soleil goes to Manhattan

'Wintuk' hopes to revamp troupe's NY past

NEW YORK — Prior to next month’s “Wintuk,” Cirque du Soleil hadn’t had much luck coming to Manhattan.

The Canadian-based circus troupe, which has preemed its new shows in Montreal and Las Vegas, had received offers, but had trouble finding an ideal fit. “The theaters are old; their format is so much smaller-scale that we barely fit in them,” explains Cirque co-founder Gilles Ste-Croix.

When the company’s shows have come to Gotham in the past, they pitched their tent in the middle of the East River on Randall’s Island, a lousy spot for a tourist attraction.

But arriving Nov. 1 at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater will be Cirque’s first Gotham preem and its first family-focused production. “Wintuk,” which chronicles a kid’s quest to bring the snow back from a fantasy land to his home city, will also be in competish with other holiday-themed shows, including the return engagement of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and the annual Radio City behemoth.

Seasonal theater in New York has become a highly profitable enterprise. Last year, “Grinch” had a very happy holiday to the tune of $13.3 million in a scant two-month run (the show ran 12 times a week), and will be coming back for more in less than a month.

The Garden ran “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” for a full decade, but the org has been hunting for a new annual family attraction for its WaMu Theater since that tuner raided its last stocking in 2003.

Now, the ever-mutable Cirque has transformed again to fit its New York-exclusive family show into the Garden, with plans to return as a regular holiday feature.

The pairing of company and venue doesn’t seem at first glance like an intuitive match — Cirque frequently tours adult-targeted shows, and the Garden’s low, wide theater looks unaccommodating to the troupe’s usual high-flying acrobatics. But Ste-Croix and MSG Entertainment exec VP Jonathan Hochwald say the challenge was a welcome one. “Cirque has figured it out,” says Hochwald.

“The first time I went there, I said, ‘Hmm, I wouldn’t want to walk on stilts in this theater,’ ” laughs Ste-Croix. “It’s not a place where you can put a high-flying trapeze, but there are plenty of acrobatic acts that can fit in that space.”

“Wintuk” writer-director Richard Blackburn (best known for his baroque puppet design) and set designer Patricia Ruel have crafted a show that uses width the same way shows like the high wire- and trapeze-heavy “Saltimbanco” used height. Kid-friendly skateboarders and bicyclists feature prominently, along with giant puppets that lurch across the fantasy icescape.

Ste-Croix hopes the show will continue to run in Gotham, but concedes that the venture might turn into a launch pad for a national tour. “We leave the door open,” he says. “Not this year, but if we have economic success, next year we’ll come back and take it somewhere else.”

MSG Entertainment also produces another large holiday draw: “The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.” Hochwald sees the synchronous productions as an advantage, rather than a potential competitive peril.

“I think there’s room for both shows — this year, it’s the 75th Christmas, so we really are using that opportunity, too,” he says of the Radio City staple. “You won’t just have local audiences, you’ll have national and international tourists that come into New York City during that timeframe. It’s a great time of the year for entertainment.”

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