Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal powerhouse behind some of the most gasp-worthy theatrical events, is usually spot-on in timeliness, building its new shows to incorporate the latest advancements in technology. Cirque is renowned for filling its stages with athletic derring-do from acrobats, contortionists and clowns.
But for the fanciful Toruk — The First Flight, Cirque goes Hollywood. The company attempts to turn sports arenas into giant movie sets. The action on stage, such as it is, unfolds as if watching a film come to life. For the first time, Cirque is telling a clear story, adapted from another source, edging away from the big tent shows like Kooza and Totem’s sketchily-drawn “plots” that didn’t require its performers to handle pages of script.
To achieve this new direction, Cirque collaborated with Avatar director James Cameron to bring basically a prequel to his blockbuster 2009 film to the stage. The storyline’s setting, like the movie’s, takes place on Pandora, a lush habitable moon in the Alpha Centauri star system. Pandora is inhabited by the Na’vi, blue-skinned humanoids who live in harmony with nature and who speak their own language. The dialect was created for the film and used throughout Toruk by its cast of 35. Toruk takes place many generations before the film’s 22nd century period.
The show, which opened Thursday at Sunrise’s BB&T Center and begins its Miami run at AmericanAirlines Arena on March 10, starts with narration from a colorfully-attired Storyteller. At the foot of the Hometree of the Omaticaya clan, Ralu (Jeremiah Hughes) and Entu (Guillaume Paquin), two buddies on the brink of adulthood, learn of a natural catastrophe that threatens to destroy the sacred Tree of Souls, the life source for the Na’vi people. (The leads are double cast, meaning another set of actors step into the roles at alternate performances.) Ralu and Entu must gather five talismans that will entice the all-powerful Toruk, a flying dragon-like creature, to save the Tree of Souls.
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But to get here, Cirque dispenses with much of what made its brand nearly unbeatable; namely, the awe-inspiring physical feats and much of its charm, humor and thrills. The agile cast spend much of the show running around the large 85-by-162-foot stage — a backdrop draped across the arena upon which 40 video projectors send realistic images onto the floor and lateral screens to represent fire, roiling water and flowing lava.
But after awhile, it starts to look like people running track while hollering. Taking a page from Julie Taymor’s work on Broadway’s The Lion King, the performers also maneuver large, hollowed puppets to represent the fearsome Viperwolves, which look like the hyenas in Taymor’s landmark production.
Just when an act offers the promise of thrills and risk — like the Anurai clan’s ritual atop a totemic animal, the Thanator, which looks like a seesaw made out of a huge creature’s skeleton — the action stops cold.
The cast runs about again, generating little of interest. The Storyteller/Narrator (Raymond O’Neill), speaking in English, serves as audience surrogate, since few in attendance are fluent in Na’vi. A couple times, however, his voice got mired in echo on the BB&T Center’s oversized arena floor. The arena size also tends to dwarf the characters unlike Cirque’s tent shows that put the audience much closer to them.
Toruk tries to bridge the gap by urging the audience to download a free mobile Apple and Google app that promises a full immersion experience at certain points during the show. But trying to get a signal in the cavernous arena is a feat for a Cirque technician and most of the time the app didn’t load. When the app worked, fireflies flit across the phone screen, for example, and the effect was ho-hum and a distraction.
Cirque also misreads the appeal of Avatar. Though the film set a box-office record in 2009, beaten last year by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the film has had little lasting relevance or pop culture impact. Similar to the Star Wars prequels, and The Force Awakens, which all made a lot of money without really exciting anyone, this new Avatar story is laden with cheese and feels threadbare.
Toruk’s virtues are Priscilla Le Foll’s crystalline soprano as The Shaman and, especially, the scrumptious visuals that, while falling short of rival horse show Cavalia a few years ago in Miami, nevertheless make for grand viewing. The arenas will transform into a believable bioluminescent forest, a wave-tossed river and lava-covered dead zone. Be dazzled by that and don’t expect more.
If you go
What: ‘Toruk — The First Flight,’ inspired by James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through March 6 at BB&T Center, 1 Panther Pkwy., Sunrise. Also, 7:30 p.m. March 10-13 at AmericanAirlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami