“Once upon a dream…” begins the brief narrative introduction for this trippy holiday dazzler, before launching into more than two hours (including a twenty-minute intermission) of singing, stunt-work and spectacle. And it certainly feels like a dream, offering escapist entertainment with no real through-line—aside from the very clear, often intentionally over-the-top, focus on Christmas and cold weather. Scenes shift at a moment’s notice: a twirling pair of skaters giving way to jump-roping reindeer (Elizabeth Butterfield, Brandon Harrison, Anthony Lee, Gary Schwartz) or a vaguely elfin guy (Aleksandr Rebkovets) balancing an ever-growing stack of glasses and candles on his forehead.
The set is an almost overbearing Alice in Winterland fantasy world, consisting of monstrous inflatables, a giant climbable Christmas tree and innumerable moving parts that get pushed, thrown, pulled, ridden and slid onto the stage throughout. The impressive and (mostly) endearing cast of thirty pop in and out of the action sporting various crazy costumes and even crazier talents (along with constant crazed grins—the holidays are beyond exciting, after all). “This seems like a show put together by a communist leader to lull us into submission,” a nearby patron whispered about thirty minutes in. This is not untrue.
But despite all the elaborate costumes and set work, the daring acts of skill take center stage, as is the case with most cirque shows (to be clear, I use the term “cirque” generically here to represent this type of contemporary circus show—don’t confuse Cirque Dreams with other cirque groups like Cirque du Soleil or Cirque Shanghai… or even Cirque Realty Groupe in Ukrainian Village). And there are plenty of eye-catching acts, from chair stacking to juggling to balancing, swinging and dangling. Basically, all that stuff that seems like it should be impossible.
What’s most confusing about the design of this admittedly confusing show is how the creators don’t believe we’ll be satisfied by watching these feats; there’s almost always some other action taking place at the same time as any given act. While Mrs. Claus (Irina Guseva) is performing flashy balancing tricks with her feet, an entire gingerbread house is being distractingly constructed behind her. And when the diminutive and adorable Alexandra Koroleva is balancing on Santa’s (Sergey Korolev) head (upside down on her own head—no hands!) a chorus of puppets takes the stage, singing. I know this show promises a spectacle-filled good time, but sometimes too much spectacle really is too much. Still, if you like enough Christmas cheer to blow your stockings off, this is the show for you. (Zach Freeman)
Cirque Dreams at Chicago Theatre, 175 North State, (800)745-3000. cirqueproductions.com. $25-$75. Through December 21.