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Cirque on Acid 

New show a delirious delight

There's always been an element of the surreal in the richly evocative mix of music, theater and circus that comes our way via Cirque du Soleil. Think of the headless Magritte man who strode across the stage in Quidam, the first Cirque to camp at Lowe's Speedway under the blue-and-yellow grand chapiteau.

Or how about the forest-verging volcano that was the epicenter of Varekai? The strange beings who emerged from this jungle seemed to be the spawn of deep-sea anemones crossbred with Dr. Seuss gargoyles.

So to say that the new Cirque brainchild, Delirium, represents an imaginative leap for the Guy Laliberte team cannot be a casual remark. Ringling Brothers has been a staple in American arenas for decades. But the spectacle that came to Bobcats Arena last week was further removed from Barnum & Bailey than any Cirque we've seen before.

It was musically energized by amplified rock and world beat concoctions newly endowed with intelligible lyrics. It was magnified by awesome video technology, 540 feet of see-through screens -- with projections that alternately meshed with the live action on the arena stage or served as fascinating counterpoint.

And this new Cirque veered from the awe and wonder traditionally hatched under the big top toward the bacchanalian celebration and frenzy indigenous to rock concerts. They named it Delirium for a reason. And they went for it.

I'm not sure what people saw who were seated at the foot of the stage. Certainly, it wasn't the Delirium concept. You needed to be a fair distance away to take in the full multiple-IMAX panorama of this spectacle. Oftentimes, the smaller screens at the wings of the stage that bisected the arena were merely live close-ups of the performers onstage, arguably superfluous to those seated close.

At other times, however, it was the stars and the universe beyond. Having the whole panorama before you was essential to experiencing the vertigo of not being able to take in more than a fraction of what was happening at any one time.

As a maiden effort, there were numerous missteps. After establishing a sketchy storyline, Cirque got stuck -- as it habitually does -- on whether to develop its story or cut to the acrobats and jugglers. One of these days, they'll need to commit more wholeheartedly to storytelling.

The IMAX projections occasionally devolved into tedium and MTV cliché. We never got that pit-of-the-stomach liftoff that we've experienced at Discovery Place -- or even in the recent Broadway production of The Woman in White. Moving through the universe would have been so much more awesome than merely ogling it.

But it's obvious that Cirque has tapped a new audience. As a theatergoer, I couldn't understand why the Quebec company would hire a Nitza and a full rock band to play a 20-minute pre-show, which necessitated a crew to spend an additional 15 minutes prepping the stage. No, not when Delirium is quite ample in length.

Yet, even after they'd spent more than a half hour of dallying, Cirque's judgment was vindicated when I witnessed hordes of latecomers still taking their seats after the main show began -- including many who had shelled out $99.50 for the primo seats.

Wow, drugs were never that good when I was into rock.

SINCE CIRQUE WAS in town for just two shows, and CP wasn't offering a Sunday matinee, I was obliged to take in Charlotte Symphony's Shostakovich's Centenary Celebration at the open rehearsal on Friday morning. Let me tell you, it's a whole different world at 10am.

Unlike theater companies, CSO doesn't do dress rehearsals. So you'll see principal instrumentalists in jeans, or maybe a percussionist in a jogging suit. Even a double bassist chewing gum!

Out in the hall, the audience is markedly different. The grand tier, by night the cherished domain of the well-heeled, is given over to school kids by day while adults down in the orchestra seats are instructed to inch no closer than Row K.

My impression of the demographic that takes advantage of the $10 general admission tickets is that they're largely on fixed incomes -- retired rather than sneaking a couple of hours off work. CSO is not corrupting Charlotte's banking system!

It's an outspoken bunch, too. "Weirdest thing I ever heard," said a blue-haired matron seated behind me at the close of Chen Yi's Ge Xu (Antiphony). Rather a virulent reaction to a piece sweetened with Oriental strains and soured with percussive cacophony.

Conductor Alan Yamamoto acknowledged that most assembled at Belk Theater were there for the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1, so he said a few nice words to sugar-coat the Shostakovich. Luckily, his ensemble did nothing of the kind. Cellos in the opening largo had a deeply morose Russian tang before yielding to anguished keening of the violins.

The allegro was nearly as youthful as Yamamoto promised, bordering on mania as this Soviet composer often does. In the final presto, strands of Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven's Pastoral and Rach's "Bumblebee" seemed pulled together and propelled with Shosty's special thrust.

It quickly became evident that guest soloist Simon Trpceski had something fresh to say about Tchaikovsky's iconic concerto. With a somewhat rigid intro from the orchestra -- and an accelerated tempo from Trpceski -- it certainly wasn't a sentimental statement. We were taken to greater extremes of tempo in the opening allegro than we're accustomed to by the Macedonian phenom in a convincing argument capped by a rocking cadenza. The changing rhythms of the andantino also stood out in bolder relief here, and Trpceski's final thunder in the closing allegro -- played about as fast as you'd ever wish to hear it -- was electrifying. While we didn't get a true encore from Trpceski by daylight, we luxuriated in several repeats as he and Yamamoto touched up some aspects of the performance.

No, I didn't sneak any closer than Row K to hear what they were.

IT'S NOT a pretty sight when the main adversaries of Inherit the Wind struggle with their lines in the heat of courtroom battle. That's only one of the problems plaguing the current CPCC production as three-time presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Jim Esposito) squares off against Henry Drummond (Joel Lessinger) in a recreation of the famed Bryan-Darrow face-off at the Scopes monkey trial.

Portraying the defendant, a Tennessee teacher who dared to teach Darwin, Kenny Gould is overmatched by the rudiments of acting. But he's somehow more believable than Abigail Reimer as the preacher's daughter who cares for him.

With all the musical excitement over at CP's new Halton Theater, this straight play at old Pease Auditorium didn't seem to attract much of a turnout for auditions. Or draw much of a budget for set design. Woe is us.

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