Review: 'Varekai' the best Cirque show yet

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The Greek myth of Icarus tells the tale of a young man who flies too close to the sun and plummets back to Earth. It can be perceived as a parable of failed ambition, but Cirque du Soleil uses that unceremonious fall from grace as a magnificent starting point for "Varekai," the latest show from the Montreal juggernaut to be transformed into an arena format and perhaps the best of them all.

Almost like the revisionist fairy tales so popular now, the handsome Icarus slowly tumbles into a universal community of exotic denizens, remarkably diverse and colorful, in a tropical forest. It is the premise for "Varekai," which means "wherever" in the Romani language of the wandering Gypsies. So this isn't about the fall. "Varekai" is all about the flight itself and the ecstatic feeling that it generates.

'Cirque du Soleil: Varekai’

Where: Petersen Events Center, Oakland.

When: 4 and 7:30 p.m. today; 1:30 and 5 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: $40-$170; 1-800-745-3000 or

Before he begins his journey, Icarus does just that with a beautifully choreographed routine similar to the more familiar hanging silks, but this time he is wrapped and unwrapped in white flexible netting.

It provides the contrast for the colorful characters to follow as Icarus wanders in and out of a golden bamboo forest dominated by a sweeping tree that seems to be made of giant toothpicks. Its branches warm the cold steel girders at the Petersen Events Center. Despite the tropical setting, "Varekai" loosely resembles a global trek, vaguely alluding to various locales via its live orchestral score. (Also note the haunting violin solo during a precarious cane balancing act for the Betrothed.)

Often you don't know where to look, brilliantly staged as it is. Transitions flow seamlessly. So the characters look down a hole as a white aerialist descends on a trapeze, hooked with flexible straps that allow her to negotiate a series of dazzling spins.

Along the way, "Varekai" nimbly moves from the Caribbean (of sorts) with balancing acts atop a slip-sliding floor surface to twirling Georgian dancers who leap into the air and drop to their knees.

Twin aerialists swing high above the crowd, creating innovative sculptural patterns and deservedly drawing the loudest applause of the night.

But it is hard to overlook the dancer gliding about on crutches, using the appendages like a pommel horse for flairs and bringing a hip-hop accent to the production. Pittsburgh's Bill Shannon, known as the CrutchMaster, had a hand in choreographing this character in the original tent production that came here in 2005.

The clowning always draws in the audience, and "Varekai" has some of the best, particularly the slightly smarmy magician, who is a legend in his own mind, and his deliciously over-the-top assistant. (He shows up later as the ultimate Vegas lounge lizard chasing a spotlight up to the rafters and back into an audience member's lap during the usually intimate classic, "Ne me Quitte Pas" from "Jacques Brel.")

It ended with one of Cirque's favorites, the Russian Swings, in which the men dress in muscle suits (the costumes and makeup are a show in themselves) that make Spider-Man look like a wimp. And there are not one but two swings, pressing for a larger realm of possibilities. Land on the platform on the arms of the catchers? Somersault into a pair of giant canvas landing strips? Or just nimbly jump from one swing to the other? Maybe backward? Nothing less than spectacular.

From the booming musical bass that can rattle your seat to the floating fireflies, "Varekai" never ceases to amaze in its own jaw-dropping and magical flight of fantasy that's definitely a must-see.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: She blogs on

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