DRALION: Cirque du Soleil
At the Arena District

Used to be, going to "the circus" meant the smell of sawdust, roasted peanuts and elephant droppings everywhere. There were funky ringmasters, fat ladies, trapeze artists and burbling snotty children running wild.

Such shows do still exist. They may, indeed, be with us forever, their hokey charm and cheap admission price hopefully proving sufficient to sustain them in a jaded, high-tech age.

But as everyone knows, there's a new circus in town---the Cirque du Soleil, a $500 million multinational mega-monster on the brink of establishing its own Las Vegas venue (as opposed to CircusCircus, which is SO 20th Century). Right now the Cirque plays Treasure Island, which also features an hourly pirate show on the strip.

But one of its many travelling affiliates has set up shop in the Arena District, right where the old Ohio Pen used to sit. It's playing to justly packed houses, to the extent that---despite its pricey admission tab--- its stay here is being extended.

A tent it has, one that indeed seats 2500 people. Sawdust? Elephants?

Well, suffice it to say that the only thing truly freaky about this show is the other-worldly capabilities of its performers.

The show does have its obligatory clowns. In keeping with their French roots, these guys come in black tie and bow tie. They are good. One looks just like a stereotypical ringmaster, except he can obviously cook.

And they passed the Shoshanna test. My four-year-old loved them. I had promised her clowns, thinking baggy polka-dot jumpsuits, red noses and outrageous horns. Instead we got tuxes and fake tummies. But she bought it. So if you're thinking of bringing a small child---and there were a few others in the audience---go ahead. It can work.

Shoshanna, by the way, insisted on wearing her own pink and green satin tutu. When she saw dancers on stage roughly her age, she had to be restrained from running up to join them.

But even while anchored on my lap, the long, complex and very sophisticated show did sustain her attention...and my awe.

In the opening segment, a high-flying female acrobat and a earthbound juggler were simply beyond description. They did things no human should be able to do. If the purpose of this show was to jump-start human evolution toward an entirely new species, it seemed to be succeeding. One after the other these hyper-disciplined exquisitely talented performers pulled off stunts that simply could not believed. The entire first act went completely and utterly without a flaw.

After intermission, a ball-walker and two or three of the hoop divers missed their shots. One wondered if management would have them summarily executed after the show.

But in fact their miscues served to underline how astonishing what they were doing really was. We all held our breaths as the last hoop diver aimed at an absolutely impossible leap. Having just witnessed a couple of misses, we all knew he might not make it. When he did, the feeling of both relief and appreciation was greatly heightened.

You could then speculate, of course, that the directors actually built in a few of those flaws to involve the audience in the human side of this show.

The peformers are, after all, mostly twenty-somethings. Those who missed bravely soldiered on. And it all became somehow softer and more accessible once the ice of perfection had been cracked. It also helped that some of the sub-teen performers seemed to be the children of the adult acrobats, lending a warm family touch.

But Cirque du Soleil is nothing if not the ultimate in discipline and hyper-professionalism. It is also very over-the-top, as one would expect in this age of glitz and glamour. Everything is tastefully gaudy and color-coordinated, combining the spare-no-expense extravagence of Las Vegas with the oh-so flair of gay Paris. When the second act centers on a long, musically mawkish romantic duet, the colors are as gorgeous as the performers, and the acrobatics are simply astonishing, more than enough to carry a thematically hokey spot.

For my own taste, the music was a bit limited. It was very professionally performed by a solid house band and a pair of highly competent male and female leads. But unlike the visual performances, there was nothing memorable in the musical material to stick in the mind or to draw ooos and aaahs.

But, hey, it's still the circus, yes? Shoshanna left demanding to come back, and with the firm understanding that she's got a lot of practicing to do. Her gaudy tutu should have earned her at least an audition.

But, thankfully, Cirque du Soleil is more than just glitz. There's a lot to see in this amazing show. Especially for those of us who can't fly, but who are still in awe of those who can.