Cirque du Zarkana: Not Your Father's Rock Opera

Zarkana is not a guilty pleasure, it's a genuine one, at its best moments. Just don't let the music distract you from the point of the fun.
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A musical angle on the World Premiere of Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall, Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The new Cirque du Soleil show, Zarkana -- playing through early October at Radio City Music Hall in New York City -- bills itself as an "acoustic rock opera." It's a serious, artful stage show full of seat-gripping moments, but so you know what to expect from a musical point of view, it's really none of the above.

If "acoustic" means "without electronic amplification," (thanks, Uncle Google, you know everything) -- Zarkana is quite the opposite. This show is seriously wired. Technology is everywhere, not that there's anything wrong with that.

"A rock opera tells a coherent story, and may involve songs performed as if sung by separate characters in a drama, as in classical opera." (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

As for the plot line -- there is a "main character," a magician (you can tell because he carries a wand and wears a hat). He opens and closes the action with songs that describe looking for a woman and then finding her. But a coherent story? Not so much.

There are lyrics, and they're in English, from the few words I caught. That's a change from the Cirque's usual sound language of Sigur Ros-like tones and expressive notes. But this isn't The Sound of Music -- or even Rent. Music seems to serve the same purpose it always has in their shows, which is to set a mood, or direct your attention.

There are probably millions of definitions of "rock" music (Uncle Google that one and see). The score of Zarkana dips into trancelike drones, live drums, throat singing, organ solos, and one swampy-blues number (when the clown goes to the purple bubble-wart toad planet), but you're not going to be rocking out to the soundtrack. Perhaps it's closest to opera, but that would imply that music was the central point of the show, which it clearly isn't.

So what is it? Pretty fascinating.

Audience members lingering too long in the lobby are called to attention by a performer on the balcony, serenading the crowd and calling attention to the time with the aid of a human-staffed cuckoo clock. You enter into a theater that's been Cirquized, an orange world with Dali-melted pipes above the organs.

After some clowning around (music fans: accordions abound! the juggler is standing on a piano!), the opening number gets as close to being a song as you'll hear -- in a kind of Enya-meets-Coldplay kind of way. From then until the end, it's all about the visuals.

And those visuals are amazing.

Highlight one: The Serpent Lady. Imagine Helena Bonham Carter wearing Edward's scissor hands, hanging three stories above the stage in a dress that cascades down below floor level, singing something loud and scary and doing a Winona-Ryder-in-Beetlejuice dance number, while pyrotechnics illuminate a Water for Elephants-like old circus backdrop -- and that's all in the *background* of the scene. The foreground holds four tightrope walkers, who look like chubby brothers, frog-jumping each other and looking genuinely scared.

Highlight two: The set becomes a steampunk amusement park, full of complex and beautiful motion, while two of the balancing brothers perform in and around a giant apparatus -- the 'Wheel of Death' -- which looks like a cross between a French Horn and an eggbeater.

There's more: A live Magritte painting of upside-down men with umbrellas; a gymnast triple-flipping onto a flexible, carried beam; a tumbling team that stacks itself four people high.

I couldn't tell you what the musical accompaniment was for any of it. Does it matter?

I suggest you turn your music brain off. This isn't Broadway, which it's not meant to be. It's more strange, from the immense black widow spiderweb that surrounds and supports a team of trapeze artists to the 8-legged freak baby trapped in a watery drum, singing about its own funeral.

This isn't Vegas, it's more artful -- from the solo sand painter who opens Act II, to the smooth contortionist modern breakdancer, to the shapes of the shadows on the walls of Radio City. They opened in New York for a reason.

Zarkana is not a guilty pleasure, it's a genuine one, at its best moments. Just don't let the music distract you from the point of the fun.

Rita Houston is Music Director of WFUV Public Radio 90.7 FM and in New York City. Follow her at @RitaHoustonWFUV

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