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Fantasy Forest At Lowe's 

Plus, two other shows for the inner child

Skeptics who might have arched an eyebrow when I labeled Cirque du Soleil the "Cadillac of circuses" might have dropped a jaw after witnessing last Saturday night's performance of Varekai. At the main gate surrounding the blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau, where Cirque's newest traveling show is performed, a line of limousines was waiting for the VIPs in attendance -- as if Lowe's Motor Speedway were hosting a Hollywood opening.

Like Quidam, which introduced Charlotte to Cirque's signature glitz in 2002, Varekai comes our way perfectly climate-controlled, cleansed of all grubbiness, vulgarity and bestiality. No sawdust, no freaks, and no exploited animals.

But the appeal is not merely for the elite. After seeing the show up at The Meadowlands during a summer excursion to New York, the wife and her granddaughter were eager for second helpings. Word-of-mouth drew Rebecca's parents in from Greensboro, along with her younger brother Liam.

It's a superb outing for the whole family, an escape from the ordinary. If you peep at a souvenir program ($13) or the feature-laden DVD set ($37), you'll surmise that the action takes place near the margin of a dense forest at the summit of a wacky volcano that spits up everything imaginable except fire and lava. Otherwise, you wouldn't have a clue: The eye-popping costumes give off the impression of a fantastical undersea/insect world.

A white-winged Icarus drops out of the sky, amid a godly sonic eruption from composer Violaine Corradi. Our hero is greeted by the lemony liquid-limbed La Promise, who ultimately metamorphoses from a moth-like vision into his betrothed. Circus performers aren't normally asked to portray romantic leads, but Anton Chelnokov floats almost messianically through the air on cunningly rigged netting, and Irina Naumenko contorts herself with preternatural charisma while hand-balancing on canes.

Many will find the sensual spell of the lovers eclipsed by the graceful Atherton Brothers soaring together and apart on the aerial straps. Concept here is thinner than Quidam, but the mood is sunnier overall. Most adorable for young and old will be the trio of diminutive young Chinese acrobats who perform as Water Meteors, flinging ropes with metal bowls attached to both ends high in the air, tumbling gymnastically across the arena while they're aloft, and catching them with their outstretched little arms as they fall.

The festive mood reaches its colorful zenith, propelled by the zippiest section of Corradi's score, at the start of Act 2 when an international troupe performs "body skating" -- and intriguing balancing feats -- on a slick surface spread over the stage. Energy and excitement build throughout the evening. Three masters of revelry from Soviet Georgia whipped the audience into a frenzy, topping each other with their dizzying dances before intermission. And prior to the final tableau, a dozen acrobats from Russia and the Ukraine performed wonders that had me yelping out loud.

Clowning in Varekai is winsome, if only tenuously connected to the main storyline. Steven Bishop draws the biggest laughs as a slick saloon singer chasing the spotlight. You may prefer the collaboration of Sergiy Marchenko and Michel-Andre Cardin -- the latter decked out unforgettably in sprouting burlap overalls -- in their classic "Light Bulb" sketch.

Stealing glances at how all this sensory stimulation was playing to the family, I noticed that Rebecca and her folks were reasonably ecstatic. Little Liam sported a glazed, zonked-out look from about the midpoint of Act 2. Small wonder. We put these sibs through a bombardment of kiddie spectacles that began before 11am.

That's when we liberated Liam from his car seat, wrested him from his mom and dad, and sped him off with Rebecca to the LolliPops Concert at the PAC. After a quickie lunch at Bojangles, we bopped over to ImaginOn for the 1pm show.

You certainly wouldn't want to reverse the itinerary for a four-year-old. Varekai is a tough act to follow, even if its plotline isn't readily apparent. At Belk Theater, the Charlotte Symphony didn't make a favorable first impression with its excerpt from Stravinsky's Firebird. The kid has issues with sudden loud noises, so he was more receptive to the "Puss in Boots" duet from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty.

At this point, ambassadors from the NC Dance Theatre Student Ensemble came to the rescue, injecting youth and freshness into the visual spectacle. They consistently overachieved in holding their audience's attention -- and with the sheer quality of their performance.

I wondered how choreographer Mark Diamond would sustain interest during Saint-Sains' Carnival of Animals, a sequence that climaxes with a soporific swan. Not to worry, Diamond reprised the entire musical menagerie after the majestic poultry floated away on toe. Meanwhile, his rooster, his elephants, his fishes and his decomposing fossil were all delights.

Naturally, I was eager to see the impression that ImaginOn, the new Wachovia Playhouse and the trusty Tarradiddle version of The Velveteen Rabbit would make on my Sue's grandkids. It would be difficult to decide which one pleased us best.

Sitting on the front row bench, Rebecca could set her Family Play Guide on the edge of the stage and work on the page 2 anagrams without really leaning over. So a lot of the action, when the actors supplanted the pamphlet, was almost literally in our laps. In this new setting, Sandra Gray's toybox set, opening and closing with nifty little slides and latches, yielded a pleasure very much akin to the experience of owning a lovingly crafted toy.

Of course, Margery Williams' tale is very much about the magic transmitted in the making of such a toy -- and what it gives to the child who owns it, lives with it and builds fantasies upon it. That's why we yield so readily to the notion that the cuddly Velveteen Rabbit deserves to be real.

I've seen Scott Davidson's adaptation at the old Children's Theatre twice before. Settling in the Promised Land of ImaginOn, where it can radiate its soft colors and rich sounds, this third generation seems by far the best. In certain respects, the immobility of the Rabbit makes it the polar opposite of the pesky rodent Nikki Adkins played a year ago in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Yet the consanguinity is obvious -- another Adkins gem -- and Chaz Pofahl gives a breakthrough performance as The Boy.

Little Liam was on an exalted plane throughout. Much of the time at Symphony and Cirque, he had his hands over his ears, shielding himself from the sound. Here he was all aglow, hands at his side, even though the actors -- particularly Ashby Blakely as the sagely Skin Horse -- were projecting mightily to the back row.

Nursery magic indeed.

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