TAMPA — I never thought I'd say this, but Cirque du Soleil has lost some of its luster with Saltimbanco, the longtime tent show that has been restaged for arenas. Don't get me wrong: the Cirque acrobats are still among the most magical performers I've ever seen, but something was missing from the opening show Thursday night at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Many fans love to experience Cirque in its high-tech theaters in Orlando and Las Vegas, but I most enjoy the tent shows. Under the blue and yellow big top, you are in the company's home, with all the quirkiness and character that can mean. None of that exists in the bland, institutional setting of an arena, and there are times that Saltimbanco seems like just another traveling circus — a good one, to be sure — that lacks the atmospheric twist of weirdness you feel so intimately in a tent.
Part of the problem may lie with Saltimbanco, one of Cirque's oldest shows, dating back to 1992 and due to celebrate its 5,000th performance on Tuesday. There are plenty of people who are put off by the French- Canadian company's artiness, and for them, this may be the show to see, but I have always taken a shine to the more thematically ambitious efforts, such as Quidam, with its dark tale of a girl's coming of age.
In the first act, the pacing of Saltimbanco falters badly. After the marvelous Chinese Poles, featuring about 20 muscular athletes in pastel-streaked spandex, the performance bogs down with a string of traditional, self-contained circus acts. These include a trick bicyclist, a juggler and a clown routine that goes on much too long. The act's finale, Boleadoras, a duet with twirling bolas and percussive flamenco-style dance, is strangely anticlimactic.
Still, much of Act 2 is Cirque at its best, starting with the amazing Russian Swing, which hurls crazily costumed figures into the upper reaches of the arena. Large numbers like this really show off the superbly conceived choreography of Debra Brown and the heavy-metal crunch of Rene Dupere's score. And the scary highlight of the evening was the duo trapeze act by Ukrainian sisters Ruslana and Taisiya Bazaliy, limber sprites in pale blue outfits, soaring high over the crowd to blood-curdling soprano sax.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.