A scene from Kooza
(© Olivier Samson Arcand)
A scene from Kooza
(© Olivier Samson Arcand)
In the 1980s, Quebec's Cirque du Soleil reinvented the circus form by eliminating animal acts, layering European-style mysticism, mime, and storytelling over its acrobatics, and returning to the big top. The formula proved so winning that Cirque has since become an entertainment behemoth with permanent Las Vegas attractions, touring companies, even cruise ship shows. Cirque's newest show Kooza, which has just opened in Toronto, is billed as a return to its circus roots. Indeed, while the show is entertaining, it doesn't offer much that's different from Ringling Bros.

Kooza sticks to the Cirque formula in terms of having an exotic one-word title -- this one is derived from Sanskrit for "box" or "treasure" -- and accompanying descriptive material that makes the world of clowns sound like a class in French existentialism. Yet, there's no real need to have read any of the Cirque's elaborate philosophizing to follow the delicate story that writer/director David Shiner -- a veteran of both Cirque and Broadway shows such as Fool Moon -- has constructed: A childlike figure (The Innocent in Cirquespeak) flying a kite encounters a genie/jester (The Trickster) who leaps out of a magic box, releasing all the wonders of the circus.

In Toronto, Cirque's signature blue and yellow tent (known as Le Grand Chapiteau) houses a one-ring stage. Stéphane Roy's set includes a bandstand tower and fabric sails that can change the configuration of the space. Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt's wonderfully inspired costumes express and deepen the storyline and cast their own spells. Performers become Chinese soldiers, skeletons, demons, and one amazing costume features a cape of skittering rats. Martin Labrecque's lighting heightens the emotions, and Jean-Francois Cote's rock-based music contains intriguing touches of India.

There is a short pre-show as clowns move through the audience doing some classic bits: two cops chase a thief, a tacky tourist snaps photos, a messenger tries to deliver boxes that become ever-larger. Gordon White plays a rather disheveled host as he mimes, in a very amusing and original sequence, the show's sponsoring corporations and instructions to the audience. Throughout the show, White leads a clown trio that's often delightful but whose shtick eventually becomes repetitive and a bit flabby. Indeed, with a running time of three hours, the whole enterprise could use some tightening up.

Acrobatics take up about three quarters of the show and the acts are all top-quality circus performers (although there were a couple of small slips and misses on a recent night). Among the standouts who have audience members peering through their fingers are Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza and Jimmy Ibarra Zapata, leaping and jumping rope on two counterbalanced drums called the Wheel of Death, and two high-wire artists who ride bicycles and carry a yoke that holds a chair and a third acrobat.

Zhang Gongli builds a 25-foot-high tower of chairs, balancing as he goes, and he weaves a mood of pensive wonder about his act and seems almost sorrowful as he descends from his risky perch, taking apart his chair tower as he goes.

Among the other world-class acts on view are Anthony and Danielle Gatto, a compelling juggling team; a unicycle duo who manages some extraordinary tricks at high speed; a trio of young female contortionists including 11-year-old Natasha Patterson; and a teeterboard team which does an amazing flip using stilts. Rachel Walker is a charming solo trapeze artist but a trapeze act confined to one ring simply can't manage the range of the three-ring version.

In short, Shiner has created an authentic Cirque experience that will enthrall fans of the brand, but may not provide significant enough thrills for others to justify the time and ticket expense.