ST. PETERSBURG — In the end, the acrobatic performers of Pop Goes the Rock win your heart. The things they do are so remarkable — just to dream up, much less execute — and demand such incredible talent, commitment and plain old hard work to master, that you watch their daredevil feats in jaw-dropping awe.
When two guys went to balance together on a collection of small tables and rolling cylindrical tubes — to the '90s swing tune Zoot Suit Riot — their task was so absurdly difficult that it seemed impossible. Yet there they were, teetering high atop a precarious pyramid of found objects, basking in the wild applause of the crowd.
The extravaganza that opened Tuesday night at Mahaffey Theater is the latest show by Florida-based entrepreneur Neil Goldberg, who has turned riding on the coattails of Cirque du Soleil into a thriving franchise called Cirque Dreams, which includes everything from Vegas spectacles to cruise ship revues to Broadway shows. This time around, he takes the counterculture dream of combining rock 'n' roll and circus acts and makes it the rationale of a zany, slickly produced show that feels less like a piece of theater than a rock concert with visuals.
Unlike Cirque du Soleil productions, Pop Goes the Rock doesn't have the slightest pretense of telling a story, beyond the Jack-in-the-box idea that gets things rolling, and that's a problem. Sure, Cirque can be preciously arty, but there's a reason for the narrative themes and symbolism it works into its shows to suggest drama. For all the appeal of the performers and the cleverness of the Goldberg staging (he's credited as creator and director), one circus act after another can become monotonous.
Conceptually speaking, a lot of the heavy lifting for Pop Goes the Rock involved securing the rights to a collection of more than 20 pop hits that cover the stylistic waterfront, somewhat tilted to rousing anthems like I Love the Nightlife but also including some oddballs, like In the Summertime, the old Mungo Jerry song. Sometimes the juxtapositions are a bit weird, as in the segue from Rappers's Delight to Roger Miller's folksy King of the Road. There's a three-piece rock band and a pair of lead vocalists, one of whom is the circus ringmaster, and they do a decent job with the music.
In a theatrical setting, circus performers can communicate a surprising amount of emotion, and that's what made the wire-walking and juggling act of Vitaliy Ostroverkhov so effective. Two strongmen (Qiang Xie and Jian Zhang) did body sculpting that was deeply moving. Perhaps the crowd favorite Tuesday was the performance of two amazing tumblers, with little Henok Yazachew being tossed high in the air from the feet of Temesgen Zada. And then there were the acts so improbable — such as Elena Tselishcheva, who made quick changes from outfit to outfit, with only the help of a mysterious coat rack, to Beautiful — that you just had to wonder where these amazing people came from.
Unfortunately, the playbill is not very clear in identifying each performer and where he or she is from (merely noting that cast members are from China, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Italy, Portugal, Ethiopia and the U.S.). Only one of the performers, Victor Dodonov, is credited in the two-man zoot-suit balancing act.
Technically, Pop Goes the Rock has some dazzling moments, such as the laser light show at the top of the first and second acts. The costume design is suitably flashy, and it includes quite a few droll touches, such as the three figures in what look like large orange pillowcases.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.