BWW Reviews: CIRQUE DU SOLEIL TOTEM Creates a Magical, Cultural Experience Now Through Dec 18

Like its namesake, Cirque du Soleil's "Totem" celebrates the past, history and future of the earth's residents. Its promoters label it as telling the story of evolution, but its many aerial and acrobatic acts seem to fly right past scientific theories and the evolution of humanity and focus more on various individual cultures and the beauties of the universe.

There are few things one can say to keep people away from Cirque du Soleil productions. No matter how one criticizes the theme or the music, Soleil always delivers perfection in its acts - their only flaw: they never last long enough. Therefore, the rest of this review will function as a commentary on how "Totem" could improve, despite the fact that, with or without any changes, the circus will draw in sell-out crowds for every performance.

As expected, every routine brings excitement, oohs and awes from the audience. The show opens with an impressive gymnastic high bar routine done to one of the most enjoyable music numbers of the show. Women ride around on unicycles while throwing cups with one foot and catching them on their heads. Body builders do tricks with hanging rings. A man balances upside down with only his head on a very high pole. Even the clowns do a few physical tricks (and their humor releases tension between some of the more thrilling, edge-of-your-seat routines). 

Cirque du Soleil takes the most dangerous acts of the typical circus, gets rid of the animal acts, and creates a show with artistic excellence, bright costumes and intriguing themes that make every Cirque different. In "Totem," the costumes compliment the action, ranging from gecko-inspired outfits to alien-like costumes lit under black lights. Even the transitions between acts are done with poise and grace. And the music, taken from various cultural backgrounds and incorporating a lot of drums, is at times relaxing and at other times upbeat and tension-building. The orchestra plays behind what appears to be tall reeds or plants on the back of the stage, but often comes out on stage to interact with performers.

The most enthralling acts are often the most beautiful ones. During the first half, two women come dressed in sparkly, Vegas show-girl-like costumes and do a foot juggling act in which they spin cloths around on each hand and each foot so fast that the sparkling cloths look like beautiful diamonds or stars in a vast universe. The second half of the show features two Native American characters dressed in white. On a small platform, the two roller skate. The man holds the woman by the feet and arms, spinning her around. All the while, their motions represent the joining of man and woman. In a fixed trapeze duo, a man and a woman play games until they finally realize that they love each other. 

But the artistic excellence of "Totem" fails in one aspect: its randomness. The show has no consistent story line. It's supposed to be about the progression from the earth's origins to man's desire to fly, and the show does include a few acts that reflect that, but those acts seem out of order. Audiences are taken from tribal amphibians to Native Americans to modern body builders on the beach with Indie background music to an act with an African-American theme to clowns water skiing and fishing using modern boats to apes and cavemen and businessmen to modern scientists to a Hispanic act with bullfight influences to a man and a women dressed in plant-like costumes to Native Americans, and again to aliens... or are they astronauts? And, wait a minute! What is a caveman doing on another planet? 

The characters are random, too. A scientist character, whose costume will remind audiences of Charles Darwin, enters as a random observer in certain acts throughout the show. And a character dressed like a circus master enters several acts after the opening of the show. He comes back a few times, has his own big number (admittedly an entertaining one), and then disappears. And how do body builders and clowns on a beach fit in with the more exotic feel of the show? 

Perhaps the show could use some re-theming so that the exotic feeling the majority of the acts possess stays consistent. It's finale could certainly use a re-imagining. After two hours of amazing physical feats, you expect more than a simple dance from the cast. 

All artistic excellence aside, the show would be much more enjoyable were it not for the extremely tight seats. The tent in which the performance takes place is small, and one expects Cirque to cram as many customers as possible, but not to the point of total discomfort. And, if you're uncomfortable with high prices, stay away from the merchandise for sale in the lobby area. Although "Totem" offers a great deal on the soundtrack and program (just $20 for both), it sells t-shirts for prices as high as $79 and purses for even more. 

But, as this review originally stated, any cons fade away in light of the many pros of Cirque du Soleil. The price tag is high, but so is the magic. This isn't your ordinary circus, and "Totem" will impress, whatever your reservations.

Picture Credit: Daniel Desmarais
Costume Credit: Kym Barrett

Totem by Cirque du Soleil

Now through December 18, 2011

AT&T Park - San Francisco, California

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From This Author Harmony Wheeler

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