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BWW Reviews: Cirque du Soleil's IRIS Pays Homage to Old Hollywood

As someone who has spent his formative years growing up in Las Vegas, there have only been a scant few years in my life when I didn't know the existence of Cirque du Soleil. Even today, it seems like you can't go a few yards on the Strip without coming across one of their shows' striking marquees (not to mention the many other shows they have touring the globe). Indeed, the Montréal-based purveyor of fantastical, imaginative shows has for decades now remained synonymous for showcasing the beautiful, often unbelievable physical feats of extraordinary humans—all gift-wrapped in an artful, sophisticated package full of whimsy and whiz-bang entertainment.

So to experience the debut of a brand-new, specially-conceived-for-its-venue spectacular right from the start—in the very city that inspired it—is just incredibly exciting. A truly well-conceived creation, IRIS: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE WORLD OF CINEMA takes the magic of Cirque du Soleil's jaw-dropping big-top acts and infuses it with the familiar images, milestones, and iconography of early moviemaking. With plans to have the show be a decade-long permanent fixture at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood—the venue specifically built to serve as the permanent home of the Annual Academy Awards ceremony—audiences will have plenty of chances to see this rousing, entertaining show.

Using an expertly crafted combination of state-of-the-art projections (both live and pre-filmed), inventive digital stage effects, colorful costumes, imaginative sets, dazzling choreography, a triumphant musical score by the one and only Danny Elfman, and, of course, an impressive, ethnically diverse troupe of talented performers unique to their universe, the show revels in its love of all things Hollywood. Hypnotic and gorgeous from start to finish, the thrilling IRIS turns celluloid beauty into living stage art. It is arguably Cirque du Soleil's most artistic rendering of a single thematic motif to date, and is absolutely the perfect show to call the Kodak Theatre home.

Written and directed by Philippe Decouflé, this new show is engulfed in the manic sights and sounds of old Hollywood, taking the audience through a breathtaking tour across multiple film genres and even into the imaginative realm that exists somewhere between shadows and light—which, in essence, are the elements that create Moving Pictures. Perhaps to compliment the setting of the famous venue that houses it, everything here feels much more grand and opulent, from the sweeping, lyrical movements of each character to the kaleidoscope of set pieces that feel alive and vibrant.

In between the hilarious comic bits and awe-inducing displays of athleticism, you'll be feasting in an endless buffet of eye candy. Visually, IRIS evokes an eye-popping mash-up of the silent era-grandeur of D.W. Griffith with the bold audaciousness of Cecil B. DeMille and the more modern technicolor outlandishness of Baz Luhrmann. It's The Greatest Show On Earth meets Moulin Rouge with a little Modern Times thrown in—as envisioned through the aperture of a 3D cinematographer with a silly sense of humor and a penchant for beautiful pathos. There's so much to see in this brilliantly art directed show that there were times that I found my attention traversing the stage to scan something else, just to take all of it in and to make sure I didn't miss anything. Even sideline characters and dancers are caught in the moments that create such beautiful images.

Though the show harkens to the Hollywood that was still in its infancy a century ago, the era portrayed in the show—ruled by silent film stars that were recruited from vaudeville stages—is recreated with the technical wizardry and pop-savvy wit of a modern day impresario. Punctuating the entire show is the recurring story of adorkable but morose film composer Buster (Raphael Cruz, looking very Buster Keaton-like in looks and mannerisms) who falls for a lovely aspiring actress, a pixie-haired ingenue named Scarlett (Alice Dufour, then later Olga Pikhienko during the stunning hand-balancing finalé). The two would-be paramours often run into each other as they navigate through the industry, each carving out very different paths in the 'biz. As often found in Cirque shows, the separation between the worlds of reality and make-believe often blur, and here, the art form of film itself lends well to this very conceit.

What Cirque du Soleil succeeds in better than anyone else is its genuinely poetic, avant garde approach to visual entertainment. IRIS is no exception, and, actually, this artistic approach feels even more elevated here. By no means does the show ever traverse too much into the abstract, deeming it too out there that it goes over most people's heads. On the contrary, there is no second guessing what this show aspires to honor, even as trapeze artists and bungee jumpers hover above the proscenium.

And, as expected, the awesome "circus" acts themselves are quite outstanding—yet somehow, in IRIS, they all feel more integrated into the overall theme, instead of just presenting each of them as another "act" in between visual treats, dance numbers, and comedic vignettes. Highlights include a pair of twin gymnasts (Andrew and Kevin Atherton) that soar literally high above the orchestra-level seats via straps; a group of diminutive female contortionists that bend and stretch with ease and precision; the gorgeous balancing act performed by Pikhienko's Scarlett which serves as her love letter to Buster; the daring—and wonderfully colorful—leaping "bugs" comprised of Chinese acrobats that step out of the screen and tumble atop each other; and, of course, the incredible trampoline tumblers that here are re-imagined as a bunch of cops giving chase to a gaggle of criminals through the rooftops. Adorned in zoot suits with tommy guns in hand, these amazing athletes leap and bounce as if painted with the hues of a Dick Tracy comic book. Color me impressed.

In keeping with the theme, many sequences are replete with visual metaphors that not only convey the mood of cinema but also demonstrate the technology behind it. In one truly inspired section, the cast demonstrates the idea of a film strip: a series of still picture "frames" rapidly moving to form a seamless movie. In this case, several dancers—in an ingenious execution of great timing and perfect syncopation—act out a series of moves in ordered succession, which when viewed, total a finished sequence. It's like a life-size zoetrope come to life!

And perhaps my favorite overall vignette of the entire show—the grand opening to the show's second act—finds what seems to be the entire cast of the show in a unison sequence that transports the audience smack dab in the middle of an actual working film set, complete with props, rigs, and a decorated soundstage set. You'll be mesmerized by the dizzying but beautiful chaos that erupts here, which finds the performers criss-crossing the stage in a fervor of activity. You'll find actors scurrying to their places and stage hands balancing on wood planks or leaping up ladders to install light bulbs, while costumed characters move brilliantly through a choreographed routine that resembles a very in-sync flash mob.

As marvelous as this show is, it is by no means flawless, but it does come close. My only gripe—and it's a minor one that's easily fixed as the show continues to find its footing in the next, uh, decade—is its comedic sequences. While some comic interludes and sight gags are funnier than others (some are even quite topical), a few recurring bits and some periphery characters just feel awkward, and some of the jokes fall flat or don't quite translate to laughs.

By far, the funniest sequence in the entire show is also its most improvised, a welcome trait found in other Cirque shows that involve direct audience participation. [SPOILER ALERT] This being the Kodak Theatre—the home of the Oscars®—it's almost a given that a Hollywood-style Awards Ceremony would be ripe for an integrated parody. A few IRIS characters—playing the nominees—are ensconced in the audience as their qualifying "clips" are played for the live audience. When the eventual "winner" is announced as a random member from the audience, this person is invited to accept the award on stage, only to be met with protest and a challenge from a rival nominee. Much hilarity ensues, especially if said randomly selected person embraces the joke and participates with tongue firmly in cheek.

But, really, the comedy sequences are merely padding to an otherwise entertaining, awe-inducing theatrical experience. Overall, IRIS is nothing less than an intelligently-conceived, expertly art directed, clearly accomplished new work from Cirque du Soleil. Without a doubt, it is the company's most thematically thought-out creation yet, taking elements from the film medium and exploding it into an extraordinary stage homage rooted in something truly tangible: that movies are a beloved part of many people's lives and IRIS is Cirque's own affectionate love letter to the art form.

Judging from the enthusiastic reception the show's gala Opening Night performance on September 25 received—which also featured a surprise appearance by composer Elfman who opened the show by singing (live!) the "rules" of conduct the audience must follow—IRIS is well on its way to being the theatrical must-see show for anyone living in or visiting the L.A. area. 

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq

Photos from Cirque du Soleil presents IRIS: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE WORLD OF CINEMA by Matt Beard © 2011 Cirque du Soleil. Costumes by Philippe Guillote.


Performances of Cirque du Soleil's IRIS: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE WORLD OF CINEMA continue at the Kodak Theatre, located at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles, California. Set design by Jean Rabasse. Projection Design by Olivier Simola and Christophe Waksmann. Written and directed by Philippe Decouflé.

Tickets range from $43 to $133 (VIP tickets are available at $253) and can be purchased on line at or by calling 1-877-943-IRIS.

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From This Author Michael L. Quintos