“Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle,” an old Broadway sage once advised, and Cirque du Soleil certainly did that May 25—in sparkling spades!—with Paramour, its first Main Stem extravaganza currently filling the stage and airspace of the Lyric Theatre.
Having laid siege on more than a few occasions to the temple where they pass out Tony Awards—Radio City Music Hall—the Quebec-based entertainment franchise has finally staked a claim in legitimate theatre and asked to be taken seriously as a show rather than as an event. This edition, “created specifically for Broadway,” raises the curtain on our 2016-2017 season with 18 dancers strutting down stairs that light up one step at a time—while human bodies fly right and left like confetti.
Sometimes, bodies seem to float more than fly, defying gravity, staying aloft a silly millimeter longer than the norm. As a whole, this troupe of tumblers and acrobats spends enough time in the air to qualify for free air mileage.
But I digress. Cirque du Soleil has historically had trouble keeping a sustainable story in the air, and Paramour seems to have the thread of a narrative going, tied together from old film plots. It starts out with [On the] Twentieth Century (tyrannical director vs. malleable diva), mashes that into A Star Is Born and comes out The Red Shoes (with the star’s composer/beau stepping up to the plate to form a love triangle).
As becomes The Red Shoes, our star/heroine is a ravishing redhead—one Indigo James—torn between her mentor, A.J. Golden, and her true love, composer Joey Green. What this comes down to is: she doesn’t know if she wants to become Indigo Golden or Indigo Green. (Evidently, so as not to confuse matters, Mr. Blue didn’t make the cut.)
Along the way, there are playful visual throwbacks to Busby Berkeley’s “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” train-compartment number from 42nd Street and the barn-raising from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. And one big production number, “The Honeymoon Days of Fame,” uses movie posters for its parody launching-pad, spoofing all the usual suspects from Casablanca to Some Like It Hot to the Liz Taylor Cleopatra.
At this point—Scene Ten, Act One—Cleopatra’s epic arrival procession stops cold in its tracks, and Cirque du Soleil asserts itself, showing its true colors by sending into the Lyrics’ stratosphere twin aerialists Andrew and Kevin Atherton for six minutes of mesmerizing dips and dives. To understate, the audience loses it for the lads.
“That particular act we’ve been doing together for 15 or 16 years,” admitted Andrew Atherton (possibly Kevin). It’s not the kind of act you over-rehearse. They started at age 7.
The Atherton bros were the only featured act to speak to the press after the opening performance, and they spoke in a thick North English accent, hailing from Wigan, just outside Manchester. “We’ve never done it to a Broadway audience like that, but we certainly felt the electric vibe in the theatre when we finished,” said Atherton.
“We work with a team, but we basically choreographed it ourselves. We have two directors—an acrobatic conceptor and a choreographer— who watch us and work with us closely. If we come up with something, they will tweak it to make it right. It’s about what’s comfortable for us as much as what looks good to them for the public.”
As is usually the case with Cirque du Soleil, the music is accessible to the masses and derivative, always easy on the ears without making a major dent in the memory.
Seth Stachowski, who conducts the show’s 16-song score, said it comes from different sources. “We have Bob and Bill, who are the Cirque du Soleil champion composers, and then we have a songwriter from the pop world, Andreas Carlsson. It’s a big combination of these two worlds, and I think it’s a very successful one.”
Fitting the music to the action and imagery is no easy undertaking, said Eric Heppell, artistic director and acrobatic coach. “It’s always a little bit of a give-and-take. You dream of the acts that you will produce, then you start working on the music, thinking of these acts—but, until you start to see the acrobats and the dancers, your music is not set in stone. Then, finally, when we really start to train and produce the acts, that’s when you put the finishing touches on the music. It’s really an interaction between the acrobatics and the composer. It’s not created in a vacuum. It’s created together in symbiosis.”
Despite Heppell’s title, he doesn’t hog the credit. “To be perfectly honest,” he was quick to concede, “Philippe Decoufle is the director who created the show, and Shana Carroll is the associate director and acrobatic choreographer, and West Hyler was the scene director and associate director, too. They created the show you saw tonight on stage. Me? I’m just here to maintain it. They’ve given it over to me, and I have to make sure it stays true to their vision.”
What does Hyler do for his “associate director” credit? Plenty: “My function is the storytelling and the theatrical performances. I was a story writer. I worked with the actors directing the dialogue scenes, and then I’m also associate director of creation, making sure that everything that has to do with story and theatre is properly done.”
Ryan Vona plays the composer part of Paramour’s triangle and claims to be OK with that: “I connect with it deeply, being a composer and songwriter myself. It’s fun to play someone who’s finding his heart piece by piece, juxtaposing his love life with his creative life. I found it easy, but still very difficult, for me to delve into that.”
The day before the Paramour premiere, he released his debut album of original compositions. It’s called Somebody.
The leading lady, Ruby Lewis—despite the name—is a natural blonde and has never heard of The Red Shoes—but she fully intends to, posthaste. “I thought you meant the Ruby Red Slippers. I haven’t seen The Red Shoes. When was it? I’ll add it to my list.”
But for the moment, it was all she could do to cope with the emotions of making her Broadway debut. “It was an out-of-body experience,” she said. “The pressure was there to deliver the performance, but I think that I was being a little selfish in just trying to take it all in for myself. After all, you only get one debut, and this was it.”
Musically, she felt she was dealt a good hand. “My favorite song is a short one in Act One, ‘Serenade from a Window.’ I love it because I get to channel my Judy Garland.”
Jeremy Kushnier, who co-stars as her Tinseltown Svengali, concurred. “The great thing about this music,” he said, “is that it’s so hook-y it was very easy to pick up on it. Of course, the songs I love the most are the ones that I’m not in. The love ballad that Ruby and Ryan get to sing near the end of Act Two is beautiful. I love the opening number. I think it’s fun. There’s nothing in the score, actually, that I don’t like.”
A Canadian gift to Broadway and a proven heavy-lifter, Kushnier carries the bulk of the story load ably, narrating the piece as the star-making director. Bearded for this occasion, he could plausibly pass for Orson Welles (in his Mr. Arkadin days).
“I didn’t base the character on any specific director,” he said. “I think he’s a good amalgamation of the people I’ve worked with over the years. There’s sort of a ‘Rosebud’-dy feel that this show encompasses because of the time in which it lands.
“In a show like this, you have to make space for not only musical numbers but acrobatic numbers as well,” he pointed out. “To get the story over, there’s a lot less space. You have to be more precious about your acting moments. You sorta have to embrace the specificity of this piece. It’s not a Broadway show. It’s not a circus show. It is really its own piece. When you embrace it—when you enjoy it—when you see it for what it is—it’s easier to do, and I really think you enjoy it more—at least from my standpoint. From being onstage, getting to work with amazing actors and amazing dancers and then these amazing acrobats, it really is something special for me, and it is really something that I truly cherish every day when I come to work.”
Reed Kelly, one of the few dancers in the ensemble with four Main Stem credits, practically qualifies as the reigning Broadway veteran. “I think our cast is up to 38, with two swings, making a total of 40,” he said. “What’s particularly awesome for me is to be back here in another spectacle of a show.” It seems he was last in the Lyric (then Foxwoods) airspace as a high-flying Spidey in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Also returning to that theatre was Spider-Man’s embattled creator, Julie Taymor—this time as a first-nighter. She almost made it to the entranceway before some knowing soul in the press line yelled, “Welcome back!” She smiled a cloudy smile and replied simply, “Thank you. It’s nice to be here.” The exchange was all subtext.