COSTA MESA — "Quidam," the latest touring production of Cirque du Soleil, represents the beginning of a new cycle of shows differing in scope and expectations from the last.
Compared with the efforts of the previous cycle--which consisted of "Nouvelle Experience," "Saltimbanco" and "Alegria"--this one seems scaled more to human size, its theme and variations less otherworldly.
To be sure, there is a millennial tone--alternately mysterious and whimsical, always moody--embodied by surreal images reminiscent of Magritte's. Most notable are the headless figure wearing a raincoat and holding an umbrella, the man floating through space with his head framed in a newspaper and the recurring use of homburgs as ordinary emblems of the strange or supernatural.
But "Quidam"--the title is Latin for something or someone known but unnamed--has only a mild tension. Lightning and thunder notwithstanding, the apocalypse of the weird seems designed to entertain without drawing too much attention to awe-inspiring theatrics.
While there is a story line about a young girl, Audrey, who takes leave of her parents' living room and goes on a journey in the company of clowns, the weave of the story is so loose as to be nonexistent. Plot is more or less forgotten until the end of the show when, as a reminder, she is reunited with her parents.
Never forgotten, however, is the sense that "Quidam" is circus as theater. That has been true of all Cirque productions. The differences from the past are just a matter of degree. First-time Cirque-goers are likely to be awe-struck, regardless.
All of us may be glad that the show, now playing at the Orange County Fairgrounds, is basically the same one that played at the Santa Monica Pier, the company's last stop before going on hiatus for the winter holidays. But it's fresher, tighter and more invigorating.
The Chinese juggling act is gone and hasn't been replaced, entailing a palpable loss of exotic delicacy. But there are plenty of spectacular aerialists and acrobats to minimize the departure.
Also, the vacation may have put some added spring into the house company's step.
The acrobats executed with brilliant precision Sunday night, and they injected all the gymnastic choreography with evident joy.
Some specifics: In the first act, the rugged grace of Chris Lashua's "German Wheel," the contortionistic hand-balancing of Olga Pikhienko, the aerial maneuvers of Isabelle Vaudelle in a red sash and the speedy midair hoop traffic of Genevieve Bessette, Martyne Dube and Emilie Grenon-Emiroglou had the rapt audience bursting into spontaneous applause.
In the second act, the intense concentration of a body-balancing act, "Vis Versa," planted at ground level by Marie-Laure Mesnage and Yves Decoste, offered proof that gravity may be exploited as well as defied. Their slow-motion feats made for ample drama.
Not that the second act lacked dizzying heights or high velocity. It had the house troupe's rope-climbing aerialists in "Spanish Webs," the "Cloud Swing" of Petra Sprecher (who was oddly underappreciated for the risks she took) and stunning leaps and balances performed by the floor gymnasts of the house troupe's "Banquine."
Juggling has come so far these days that unless it's done with armed nukes or an incredible number of objects, it's a commonplace of street performance. "Quidam" works a variation on juggling with "Manipulation" by Patrick McGuire and Steven Ragatz, who have put together a delicate ballet of red balls, blue homburgs and silver trays.
Because Cirque du Soleil prides itself on taking the art of street performance to a higher level, it's worth mentioning that jumping rope helps stitch "Quidam" together not just as the house troupe's number, "Skipping," but as a throwback to the schoolyard athletics of young girls such as Audrey.
Also keeping the seams in line are the clowns: "Les Macloma," a corny trio whose European-style antics with balloons, a would-be musician and a violin provoked the requisite combination of nostalgia and laughter; and the "Quidam" major domo, John Gilkey, who has a light touch working the crowd and an eerie foppishness in character.
The fabric that makes this show a magic carpet, however, is the artful amalgam of music, design and lighting, without which this production would be a mere collection of circus acts.
The score and orchestration this time out are especially alluring: Haunting lyric vocals with medieval-like chorus, plaintiff cello with raucous soprano sax, folksy accordion with propulsive drums.
"Quidam" may not be the biggest or best of Cirque du Soleil's productions, despite what is to this listener the most attractive music so far, but it still keeps the promise of past outings and continues a tradition not to be missed.
* Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam" continues at the Orange County Fairgrounds, Gate 2, Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Fridays, 6 and 9:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 4:30 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 1 and 5 p.m. Ends March 30. $16.60-$45.50, adults; $8.25-$31.75, children. (800) 678-5440. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
A Cirque du Soleil production. Director and author: Franco Dragone. Director of creation: Gilles Ste-Croix. Costumes: Dominique Lemieux. Lighting: Luc Lafortune. Sound: Michel Cre^te. Music: Benoit Jutras. Choreography: Debra Brown. Artistic director: Andrew Watson.