Cirque du Soleil: TOTEM

I’m a big fan of Cirque du Soleil, having been introduced to both O and Zumanity three years ago and a dozen others on a DVD collection I bought quickly thereafter. The shows are dazzling, funny, sometimes even charming, and almost always a good time.

Totem, wrapping up the end of it’s tour through Charlotte, was a fairly decent addition to the list. There were great bits, and not-so-great bits.

It’s a two-and-a-half hour show including a 30 minute intermission, which I assume is there so you can refill on $9 beer and purchase souvenirs while you’re still amped up from the first act. The pace of the show ebbs and flows — sometimes I was spellbound, whereas other times I was starting to lose patience for a bit that seemed to go on just a little too long. Most of the feats of acrobatic and athletic talent were impressive, though some did seem to overstay their welcome just a touch.

I really only had two complaints about Totem. The first is that there seemed to be a very inconsistent storyline or theme to the show… It’s described on the website as “A fascinating journey into the evolution of mankind” and indeed, there are wondrous scenes showing interactions between primates, early humans, tribal ancestors, and the like. But then, on the heels of a scene with primal creatures, suddenly we’re shown a bunch of guys in 50s-style bathing suits sauntering out onto the stage at a faux swimming hole.

These bizarre transitions very effectively yanked me out of my fascination with the story, leaving me feeling jarred and wondering what this scene had to do with anything. Maybe there was some metaphorical connection to the sequence, but I just didn’t get it. This kind of thing happened repeatedly throughout the show — and that’s not even counting the scenes with what I have to assume were aliens from a spaceship.

My other gripe — and fair warning, this is when I start to sound like a theatre snob — is that very little of the show was particularly unique or surprising. Impressive, yes, but I had a prevailing sense of having seen most of it before. It’s like they took successful bits from other Cirque du Soleil performances and put different costumes on then to give it a fresh look and feel, but a lot of it just seemed stale.

Not all scenes were that predictable, certainly… But when two characters appeared onstage in Native American costumes and roller skates, my date and I exchanged glances and quickly whispered a premonition about what was going to happen… Sure enough, a complete move-by-move recreation of a similar act (with different costumes) that we saw a couple of years ago. I don’t want to be the jaded theatre-goer who thinks he’s seen everything under the sun (yes, a “du Soleil” pun, I couldn’t help it) but for the kind of money these shows charge, it’s good to be pleasantly surprised by novelty.

Don’t get me wrong: TOTEM was an entertaining show, with quite a few scenes that made me gasp or exclaim my awe aloud (and yes, several laugh-out-loud funny moments… it IS Cirque du Soleil, after all.) The music was beautiful as always, the skill of the performers is certainly phenomenal, and the brilliant use of lighting and staging to set the scene was unparalleled. But I’ll confess that by the time the last big sequence came to a close, I found myself hoping that the performers were ready for their final bow so I could get out of there.

If you’ve never seen a Cirque du Soleil show before, TOTEM will be a great introduction. Even if you’ve seen them before and love the style and glamour of it all, you will probably still enjoy this show. Definitely go see it if you have the opportunity — but don’t bother paying top dollar for good seats. The tent is surprisingly small, so even the cheap seats will give you a fantastic view.

And watch out for the concessions… I swear my beer tab was almost as much as my ticket price.

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