Due to renewed fascination with the Wild West, audiences have found several recent entertainment-based homes on the range. TV gems such as Deadwood and HBO’s smash Westworld prove that we’re still not tired of the whiskey-swillin’, sharp-shootin’ days of yore. Montreal’s Cirque Éloize capitalizes on our unabiding love for the rowdy in its newest work, Saloon – A Musical Acrobatic Adventure, presented by the Kimmel Center and the Shubert Organization as part of their Broadway Philadelphia season. Saloon provides all the thrills and satisfaction of a night of circus, but has quirks that keep it from being a complete escape to the past.
Cirque Éloize has been delighting audiences with its theater/circus fusion since 1993, and Saloon is a worthy addition to its list of dazzlers. This latest endeavor has all it needs to wow a crowd: Gasp-inducing stunts in the air and on the ground (juggling, Korean plank jumping, and more), eye-catching costumes (Sarah Balleux), and a cast of strong, charming performers to carry the work. The piece also features a live-music component, with onstage musicians who sing, strum, and drum around the space, invoking that jumping Western saloon feel. It’s an exciting collaboration, and music director Éloi Painchaud’s soundtrack almost makes it impossible to stay in your seat. (Who doesn’t want to get up and dance to "Cotton-Eyed Joe?")
Saloon is at its best when it is at its simplest. Acrobat Shena Tschofen expertly spins like a top in a Cyr wheel act while singer Sophie Beaudet croons a Patsy Cline number as smooth and rich as molasses. A train magically appears on stage through the transformation of a piano and a few boxes (clever, ingenious set design by Francis Farley). Johan Prytz shines as a clownish cowboy who takes a joyride on a feisty horse in a routine realized by just two dangling ropes that allow him to swing to and fro. These moments have plenty of flash, but their simplicity allows both performers and designers to shine.
West meets East?
The company’s exploration of Western expansion is thoughtfully considered. They make great use of the masculine energy it took to build the railroads and of sexy and ruthless bar culture and the exhilarating yet dangerous lawlessness of the landscape. Combined with strong comic timing, Saloon has all the elements for a punchy 80 minutes of entertainment. But some of the choices made by artistic director Jeannot Painchaud and his collaborators feel like overreaching missteps rather than playful artistic liberties.
Flashes of incongruity, such as flamenco flourishes danced to vaguely Indian musical motifs, took me out of the experience. And when there is so much to glean from a part of our nation’s past, why stray into something that muddies an otherwise clean narrative?
In spite of the more puzzling artistic decisions, the show’s physical prowess and musical stylings make Saloon undeniably captivating. Cirque Éloize is a company not to be missed when its performers roll—or fly, or tumble—through your town.