About 45 minutes into Paramour, the Cirque du Soleil musical that opens at Broadway’s Lyric Theatre tonight, the twin aerialists Andrew and Kevin Atherton are suspended over a stage set of what’s supposed to be a movie set of Ancient Egypt. They’re a striking pair: platinum blond, lantern-jawed, impossibly toned, and mirror images, each hanging from a strap and effortlessly contorting himself, dozens of feet above the stage. It’s the sort of breathtaking, beautiful athleticism you expect from Cirque du Soleil, and it’s thrilling. The audience is rapt. At the end of their number, the Atherton twins get the evening’s biggest applause.
It’s also one of the few moments in the show that truly delivers that Cirque thing, the moment when you’re mesmerized and awestruck by what a well-trained human body can do. For most of Paramour, the Quebec-based entertainment behemoth’s latest attempt at a New York production, you’re treated to a middling melodrama with some strong singing and many feats of stagecraft. What you don’t get, remarkably enough, are very many over-the-top displays of physical derring-do.
Paramour is a love triangle set in Hollywood’s Golden Age. It opens with director AJ Golden (Jeremy Kushnier, a musical-theater performer) receiving an Oscar-type award for Director of the Year. (Let’s be generous call this setup All About Eve-like.) It then flashes back to the making of the movie that won him the award, beginning when he meets his star, Indigo (Ruby Lewis, a powerful voice in her Broadway debut), a nightclub singer (and lyricist, it turns out) with raven hair and, the director proclaims, the elusive “it.” She’s got a love interest in composer and pianist Joey Green (Ryan Vona), and Golden promptly hires him to write the love anthem for his new movie. Hey, kids, you’re in the pictures.
Golden has a vision for the greatest of all films, which is somehow a combination of all films that have come before. There’s that Egyptian scene, and then a Western one, and if the story doesn’t make a lot of sense, it provides opportunities for sprawling sets, vivid costumes, and a variety of big dances and small-scale acrobatic numbers. (The man who juggles discs while balancing an umbrella on his face is indeed deeply skilled, if not quite death-defying.) There is a long montage in which Indigo is costumed as various leading ladies, her appearance then projected alongside an iconic movie poster. It makes its point, without any feat of strength; somehow, we are at Cirque du Cindy Sherman. When Indigo kisses Joey, and Golden goes mad with jealousy, he retaliates by making acrobats jump very high. The acrobats are impressive; the motivation is not.
That is the case throughout Paramour, the second act of which is about Golden’s jealous insanity, his subjugation of Indigo, his terrorism over his cast, and an accident death-by-plummeting, which somehow earns the director an award rather than either incarceration or institutionalization. The story makes no sense, the singing and dancing is delightful, and the acrobats are impressive but rarely amazing. (Philippe Decoulflé is the “director and conceiver,” West Hyler is credited as “scene director and story,” and Shana Carroll is the “acrobatic designer and choreographer.” The bouncy, brassy score is composed by Bob & Bill and Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard, with lyrics by Andreas Carlsson, who also co-composed.) The musical is trying to be many things at once, and it doesn’t fully succeed at any of them.
This is the third attempt by Cirque du Soleil, which has 17 productions running worldwide, to establish a long-running hit in New York. First, there was a narrative show, Banana Shpeel, which flopped at the Beacon Theater in 2010. Next came an acrobatic show, Zarkana, that played Radio City Musical Hall in 2011 and 2012 but never took off. Now the company has aimed higher, for an original Broadway theater. It still hasn’t figured New York out. C