La Nouba Dazzles in Downtown Disney

La Nouba

The spirit of Cirque du Soleil is everywhere in Central Florida, because the people who put together theme park shows obviously recognize a good thing when they see it. If you’ve seen Festival of the Lion King at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, you’ve seen it there. If you’ve seen Odyssea at SeaWorld, you’ve seen it there. The same is true for the new KaTonga show at Busch Gardens Tampa. Even SeaWorld’s new dolphin show can best be described as Flipper Meets Cirque du Soleil.

The imitation is sincere and flattering and all these shows are the better for it. But if you haven’t seen La Nouba, Cirque du Soleil’s signature show in its own futuristic “tent” in Downtown Disney in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, then you haven’t seen the real thing.

Cirque du Soleil is the latest and one of the greatest examples of trend that began in the seventies, when circuses, vaudeville, and “novelty acts” had fallen out of favor. Those who loved and practiced these seemingly outdated skills found fewer and fewer venues in which to show off their skills. Many took to the streets, performing for donations from the crowd. In fact, the founder of Cirque du Soleil was among them.

Another solution was to overlay various circus and carnival style acts with a veneer of post-modern, avant garde intellectualism or rock ‘n roll showmanship to appeal to new audiences. Suddenly, eccentric dancers were appearing in art galleries and absurdist plays (think Bill Irwin), vaudeville acts became avant garde Off-Broadway hits (Blue Man Group), jugglers were adding odd costumes and druggy humor (The Flying Karamazov Brothers), magicians became standup comics (Penn and Teller), and acrobats and mimes evolved into Cirque du Soleil.

La Nouba (Cirque has a number of different shows, including an X-rated Las Vegas version, appearing in venues around the world) is, at its base, a circus show, minus the animals and plus a lot of elements Barnum and Bailey wouldn’t recognize. But it’s come a long way from the streets and uses every trick that modern theatrical technology (and a few million dollars) can think up.

The story, if it can be said to have a story, seems to involve a night cleaning woman in some bizarro po-mo industrial complex who is haunted by visions of, well, just about everything. It’s all very avant garde and it seems to hint at layers of deeper meaning. I suspect however that the sound and fury signify nothing, which is not to say that these tale tellers are idiots. They are savvy showmen who know how to hook an audience in the first moments and hold them, breathless, for the next 90 minutes.

The show is structured around a small and decidedly odd assortment of characters. Some evoke familiar archetypes, while others seem to have dropped in from another plane of reality altogether. There is an adorable mime with a long Pinocchio nose and a costume that might work for Papageno in The Magic Flute. There is a smiling white-faced clown who seems to have stepped out of a silent comedy of the twenties. Other figures are reminiscent of commedia dell’arte characters or Renaissance princes.

Then there are four weird and whacked out guys in white who flounce around, striking odd poses and serving variously as Greek chorus, emcees, assistants, and participants. Weirdest of all is a gnarled and rather disturbing figure who looks like a strongman from a Russian provincial carnival with a serious case of mercury poisoning.

These characters are mere window dressing for the main business at hand, which is a series of circus acts that are variously wonderful, amazing, breathtaking, and just plain fun to watch. All of them have been enhanced with imaginative costumes and theatrical flourish. Why have an acrobat build a dizzying tower of chairs and assorted objects on the stage when you can have him do it on a platform that is already some thirty or forty feet in the air?

There are acrobats, two guys who do amazing things with bicycles, four little girls from China who do even more amazing things with twirling spindles, dancers who perform an aerial ballet while wrapped in long red streamers hung from above, and, of course, two adorable clowns who bookend the show and appear from time to time to do deceptively simple little routines that will awaken the inner child in all but the grumpiest. And that’s just the half of it.

The show culminates in a trampoline extravaganza that should bear one of those don’t try this at home warnings. In one part of the stage, there is a three-story building of sorts, complete with windows. Performers leap from the roof onto trampolines below and on the rebound seem to run up the side of the building, freezing in mid stride before gravity draws them downwards again. At other times, they bounce all the way to the roof and into perfect handstands or pop perfectly through the open windows. Combined with the tumbling runs taking place simultaneously downstage on two crisscrossing trampoline runs, it’s an absolutely breathtaking display that reliably brings the crowd to its feet for the curtain call.

La Nouba is expensive, even by Disney standards, which makes it a splurge for most families. On the other hand, I have paid much more to see Broadway shows I didn’t like half as much. If you can afford it, by all means go. If you think you can’t then start saving. I think you’ll agree with me that it was money well spent.

Tickets are $87, $75, and $59 for adults; $65, $56, and $44 for children 3 to 9.
Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 6 and 9 pm.
There are Monday performances on Nov. 20 and Dec. 18, 2005.
There are no performances on these dates in 2005: Oct. 9 – 12; Nov. 13 – 15; Dec. 4 – 13.
For more information call (407) 939-7600.