My Thoughts on ZED

This review may contain some minor spoilers.

For those of you who don’t read long reviews I’ll cut to the chase; It’s a great show, there are parts of it that I absolutely loved, and though it isn’t as high-concept or well-drawn out in terms of story, characters and emotional arcs as the Dragone-era shows, the imagery in Zed is stunning and for the most-part the acts are framed in breathtaking theatrical tableaux and accompanied by a lush, musical score.

Now for some more details.

Zed’s aesthetic and structure alternately reminded me of La Nouba and Mystère. It isn’t as high-concept with the integration of the circus acts as say Quidam or “O” but the director, François Girard, is able to compose some breathtaking images and the show is really captivating visually and musically.

There are many characters in the universe of Zed, although they’re not fleshed out as fully as I’d like them to be: Zed (the main character with the crazy anime-style hair-do, played by Reda Guerinik, the Shaman (David Baartman), Djinn (The Baton Twirler, Seishi Inagaki), The bungee girls re-appear periodically throughout the show as these aquatic-alien type characters who dangle from aerial hammocks.

The set is visually stunning; the thrust has a center-trap that descends and rotates as well as a rotating outer ring. The backdrop is a quarter sphere that looks like a quarter of a globe, the set designer said he was inspired by the astrolabe an ancient navigational instrument for the set and stars are also a repeated design element. The quarter sphere has three levels of catwalks between which wires are strung in a haphazard web. The director places characters on the backdrop to stunning effect at various points in the show.

The costumes are very well-done. Some are highly reminiscent of Mystère’s costumes and some also remind me of the styles used in Dralion and La Nouba.

The music was the highlight of the show for me. The score is a fusion that the programme described as influenced by the Mediterranean, the Caucasus and Ireland. It’s moved along by a driving rock-beat and is really unlike any of René Dupéré’s previous work. It is somehow familiar as “Cirque du Soleil” style music but also very fresh sounding.

The show’s musicians are top-notch and appear on-stage at several times during the show. A standout is violinist Paul Lazar and his airy celtic-sounding violin riffs infused throughout the score. The band also performs a musical piece as an Entr’Acte which features amazing solos by the violinist, along with the bassoonist and the guitarist (Paul Hanson and Patrick Kelly, respectively).

I’ll say this right now I LOVE the show’s two singers. Johanna Lillvik has this gorgeous expressive soprano voice with the lilting, lyrical quality that is unique to Scandinavian sopranos. She reminds me a lot of Zara Tellander. She plays this ethereal fairy-like character and it looks stunning when she periodically descends from the rafters in this gorgeous fibre-optic infused dress to spread her wings.

Kevin Faraci is a revelation! His character is fierce, he looks like a male version of the Evil Queen from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty but it doesn’t look as ridiculous as that sounds and it somehow really works; whenever he’s on stage you can’t help but watch him. He has this commanding stage presence and I was absolutely captivated by his performance. His voice is amazing, he has a strong tenor, with a quality that is somewhat of a hybrid of pop and musical theatre, his voice has also has a warm, youthful quality that belies his evil overlord costume but it also has a richness and fullness in the lower range that lends depth to a lot of the songs. Frankly, I don’t think I could ever tire of watching or listening to him.

Some of the acts and moments in the show made a particular impression on me:

The show opens with the most jaw-dropping reveal of the set since the “O” curtain. It was a gasp-inducing transportive moment that really draws the audience into the show, it sent chills down my spine.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Johanna descend from the cuppola, spread her wings and start to sing as four bungee artists in full body suits glowing in black light performed, one of them literally over my head.

The lassos act is lifted from the traditional Chinese circus, and like Dralion, there isn’t much difference in the way the act is performed in Cirque as opposed to its traditional setting, however the highlight of the scene was watching Kevin singing at the top of the stairs, four flowing capes radiated from his costume and at the end of the act as he held the final note the capes flew off into space, it was such a grand-opera moment, I loved it. In fact the second time I saw the show,I all but ignored the lasso performers and focused on watching the dancers in the back ground and Kevin.

Continuing the Cirque du Soleil tradition of combining circus disciplines to create new acts there is an amazing combination Chinese Poles and Trampoline act, four poles are placed around a central trampoline embedded in the stage. The tramp allows the performers to mount and dismount from the poles in stunning new ways. And it’s also refreshing to see Cirque still working on developing new concepts in-house when they’ve recently stuck to buying acts off-the-shelf for the majority of their shows acts.

My least favourite act was the high wire act. It is very difficult to stage a high wire act in a way that is interesting artistically, this one was no exception. It was another one of those “death-defying” acts that had no real artistic integration or presentation quality, it was much too “Kooza” for my taste.

Likewise when the group of four jugglers in stylized harlequin costumes came out I thought, “Great, another run-of-the mill juggling act” and I was half right, the act is a standard juggling act with few surprises, much of it is similar to the juggling number in Corteo. But then the staging of the act took a dramatic turn when the performers switched to juggling flaming clubs; Kevin rises from the floor of the stage wearing a costume that looks like a creature out of Pan’s Labyrinth, complete with moving tentacles and brandishing the flaming clubs. Characters then fill the catwalks of the stage and manipulate flaming clubs of their own, it was an awesome image.

The Banquine act is technically dazzling and as good as (if not slightly better than) the Quidam version in terms of degree of difficulty. I’m not entirely sold on the staging of this version. The Quidam banquine choreography and staging is so ingrained into my mind as the pinnacle of everything that Cirque du Soleil has ever created that it’s hard for me to objectively look at this new staging. There definitely isn’t as much of a context to the Zed version as there is in the Quidam version so it’s less engaging in that respect but technically the act is jaw-dropping, the standard version includes the pendulum toss and the two-person cross over (previously only seen in the Royale version of Quidam’s Banquine). And it was definitely a treat to see so many former Quidam cast members performing this act.

Conversely, when Yves Decoste and Marie-Laur Mesnage came up on the center trap, my first thought was . . . “Oh, this act, which I’ve seen dozens of times, again” and while it is basically the same act they performed in Quidam the staging for Zed created one of my favourite scenes in the show. Firstly, the music is gorgeous, the act is performed to the song released in the Audition kit as “The World Meets” and I actually wasn’t too fond of the demo version, but tonight when I heard it as a duet between Kevin and Johanna it was so beautiful I was practically moved to tears. It sounds like a sweet, comforting lullaby. The scene also includes dozens of performers on wires descending from the rafters (very reminiscent of scenes from Le Rêve) and after the entire cast gathers on stage they perform as a chorus on the last verse of the song (lip syncing I’m sure but a gorgeous image nonetheless).

Continuing with the traditional circus acts, the show closes with a flying trapeze number. The safety net descends from the ceiling in a similar fashion as in La Nouba so I thought the act would be very similar but the pacing of Zed’s version is much faster. It’s like a fireworks display with the big tricks happening in rapid succession and this version held my attention a lot better. It’s performed to the “Charivari” song from the audition kit although the song has been significantly reworked since the demo. It has a much harder edged rock sound and more of driving beat now.

As this is the beginning of the show’s run, the performance quality has some room for improvement; I’d really like to see more character development, more dramaturgical integration of the disparate acts and more of a chemistry amongst the cast members. Hopefully these things will improve as the cast has a chance to get comfortable with the show and I’d love to come see it again in a few years.

Regardless, the show is apparently selling well, both shows today were completely sold out and when I went to buy a ticket to another show this week, I was told there were only a few single seats available for next Friday’s show and that next Thursday’s show was completely sold-out. I did manage to snatch a seat on Friday so I can see it one more time before I leave Tokyo.

Obviously, Cirque picked a good market for a resident show in Tokyo. And it’s no surprise the show is selling out, with its high calibre acrobatic acts, stunning imagery and gorgeous score it’s not hard to enjoy Zed, it’s definitely worth the trip to Tokyo to come see it.

{As Published on Cirque Tribune}