You can't really call Cirque Dreams Illumination, and other Neil Goldberg productions of a similar ilk, a ripoff of Cirque du Soleil. The Montreal-based Cirque, after all, did some ripping off of its own by bringing European and Asian circus acts to North America and adding a little bit — okay, a lot — of French-Canadian artiness to the mix.
You can call it an excellent case study in Capitalism 101. If you build a better mousetrap, imitators will rush in to exploit your brilliant idea. Actually, you have to wonder what took Goldberg and others (see Cavalia, now playing at the state fairgrounds) so long. For years, Cirque du Soleil had a virtual monopoly on the lucrative genre it created, but now the market is crowded with acrobatic extravaganzas. Once again, nothing succeeds like excess.
Cirque Dreams Illumination opened Tuesday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Here are a few thoughts I had in between marveling at the feats of derring-do.
Cirque meets musical theater: The idea behind Goldberg's productions is to put circus performers in a theatrical context, but the show is still basically a series of acts by aerialists, tumblers, contortionists, a juggler and, alas, clowns. The setting for Cirque Dreams Illumination is "urban" (a subway is the defining image of the cartoony scenic design), but the only discernible plot involves a TV reporter (singer Janine Ayn Romano) or maybe three military guys on leave in the big city a la On the Town. The generic score by Jill Winters and David Scott is relentlessly loud and heavy with a thudding synth beat, and Winters' lyrics for Romano are more or less ignored by the audience. There is no live band, except for Marybeth Kern, a strolling sax player in red hat and shoes.
Coolest act: Don't be late for the show, or you'll miss the husband-wife clothing magician (Vladimir Kurzyamov) and fashion illusionist (Olga Kurzyamova), who appear only in the tumultuous opening number that fills the stage with everyone in the wildly international cast (11 countries are represented). Somehow, Olga changes a half-dozen complete outfits in a flash behind a silken sheet held by Vladimir, and then he does a quick change himself. It's a masterful piece of trickery.
What Stomp has wrought: Found objects play a big part in the show, none more ingeniously than the stack of paint cans that Siarhei Kuzniatsou balances on. The clowns do some amusing mime with toilet seats.
Mongolia, land of contortionists: Four limber lightweights from Mongolia — Uranmandakh Amarsanaa, Buyankhishig Ganbaatar, Erdenesuvd Ganbaatar and Odgerel Oyunbaatar — twist themselves into elastic shapes in Detour, wearing leotard costumes inspired by street signs. The four also take to the air and do amazing things hanging from cubes above the stage.
Popper supreme: Robert Muraine, fresh from So You Think You Can Dance, brings pop dancing funk to his street-punk character.
Send in the clowns — not! For some reason, Cirque Dreams Illumination chooses to replicate one of Cirque du Soleil's tedious routines, with a segment in which a clown drags members of the audience on stage. The movie shtick by Martin Lamberti and his victims was excruciating.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.