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July 11, 2008 - by Griffin Miller
The hands of the clock swing around and strike mid-summer madness: when long-standing Broadway cast members hop on touring company buses and new actors step up to the proscenium plate to deliver original twists and turns on that singular roller-coaster ride known as The Great White Way. But two current Broadway shows defy this tradition. To wit...
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If you’re into cutting edge theatre – and here I mean productions destined to keep Broadway alive and thriving well into the future –– I highly recommend the brilliant 2008 Tony-winning musical for Best Book, Passing Strange. (For the record, Passing Strange was winner In the Heights’ hottest competition for Best Musical Tony, having scooped up Best Musical awards from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Drama Desk in the weeks leading up to the Tonys, as well as an Obie last season when it was raking in Off-Broadway accolades at The Public Theater.)
Like Spring Awakening in 2007, Passing Strange has a powerful contemporary rock score by a musical maverick, in this case Stew, who created the show with Heidi Rodewald in collaboration with director Annie Doresen. Stew, whose wit is as potent as his staggering autobiographical storyline (you may recall his Salvador Dali Groucho mask from his close-up at the Tonys), was probably been best described by Spike Lee who called him “An unstoppable force of energy, music, and mayhem.”
As for star-gazers (and in New York who isn’t – I mean really!), Passing Strange is proving to be one of the City’s most powerful celebrity magnets, attracting everyone from Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman to Kevin Bacon, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Clare Danes, Ruby Dee, Marilyn McCoo, Audra McDonald, Robert Redford and Diana Ross among others––many others. And the list continues to expand as show biz notables show up at the Belasco Theater – unannounced –– at any given performance. [For a taste of this terrific production, along with a bevy of critical kudos, visit www.passingstrangeonbroadway.com. Afterwards, get thee to Telecharge and book your tickets ASAP, because Passing Strange is a show you will definitely want in your personal “seen it/loved it” archive.]
As a rule, when I go to the theatre I take notes: assorted impressions, occasional quotes, inspired turns of phrase, to inject into whatever column, story or blog I have on my agenda. Pen and notebook are standard and sometimes I toss in a penlight. These tools of the trade, however, were rendered useless during my visit to CIRQUE DREAMS Jungle Fantasy thanks to six-year old Alexandra, my matinee date du jour, who decided that they cluttered her enjoyment of both the show and my lap.
And so, I gave over to the wishes of an adorably active tyke who sat – no exaggeration – spellbound for two hours and 20 minutes –– with only one restroom break.
Surprisingly, CIRQUE DREAMS’ most mesmerizing qualities come not from any hyper-groovy-techno bells and whistles, but rather from the show’s creativity: in terms of set, a jungle backdrop made up of puffed up fantasy trees and animated foliage; and costume-wise, a wondrous menagerie of sparkling and/or feathered creatures that runs the gamut from ostriches (my personal favorites) to frogs and owls (oddly reminiscent of the ones in little Ricky’s school play on “I Love Lucy”), to unicorns, lions, lizards, and so on. I also loved the unexpected appearance of the black-light illusions that marked the arrival of Act II (night vs. Act I, which was set during the day).
The performers, however, were what truly transported Alexandra – and the rest of us –– into another dimension: acrobats, jugglers, contortionists, vine swingers, balancing experts, clowns, soaring aerialists and even one woman, Stefka
Iordanova from Bulgaria, who rises through the air supported only by her hair. (Alexandra, who studies gymnastics, was especially taken with the man in the wheel who rolled across the stage with theatrical abandon.)
There is no real plot to speak of except that of an “Adventurer” – Marcello Balestracci – who finds himself immersed in a magical jungle world presided over by Mother Nature (Jill Diane), who more or less leads her charge from one “scene” to another. Ms. Diane’s lovely singing voice, accompanied by Jared Burnett, who plays the rather cryptic role of Soultree Violinist, draws in the young ones while providing a sweet musical backdrop that captivates adult theatergoers as well. (Diane’s original songs were created for the show by Jill Winters).
CIRQUE DREAMS will be playing at the Broadway Theatre (recently home to The Color Purple), through August 24th.
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