The Orlando Sentinel: “Drawn to Life” Has its Thrills

The arts are soaring again at Disney Springs.

The first show developed jointly by Cirque du Soleil and Disney, “Drawn to Life” opened there Thursday — the first public show in the shopping and dining complex’s distinctive white tent since “La Nouba” bowed out on Dec. 31, 2017, after a run of nearly 20 years.

Champagne was poured, speeches were made and even self-proclaimed “biggest Disney geek in the world” John Stamos showed up to celebrate. Disney and Cirque aren’t perfect partners, but ‘Drawn to Life’ has thrills aplenty.

A few rough edges peek through in this unique collaboration between two storytelling companies with vastly different styles, but Cirque du Soleil fans will find thrills in the company’s artistically acrobatic traditions.

Among the gasp-producing acts: A man flies over the stage on an aerial pencil-like rod, using sheer strength to beautifully position his body; later, on an apparatus I can only describe as “quadruple hamster wheels of fright,” four performers must stay in motion — running, leaping, twisting — and balance their timing or risk being dumped off the giant rotating wheels, suspended high over the stage.

Thrilling stuff.

A charismatic juggling act surprises with unusual projectiles, while a whimsical troupe of tiny trashmen nearly steal the show in an unexpected group number. Are they cute? Creepy? Whatever they are, they’re an off-kilter delight.

Beauty is found in Philippe Guillotel’s inventive costumes. Lighting designer Martin Labrecque, whose work not only sets the mood but helps preserve secret “magic,” could deservedly be billed as the star the show.

Whimsy and elegance merge neatly in another gorgeous surprise: A unicycle troupe of skirt-wearing women who create eye-catching tableaux with synchronicity and can spin their wheels like nobody’s business.

There’s an epic feeling to much of “Drawn to Life,” grander than the more playful “La Nouba” that preceded it. It’s there in scenic designer’s Stephane Roy’s towering animated backdrops that glide on and off the stage, and the grandeur comes through in Benoit Jutras’ cinematic score.

But things occasionally founder in the storytelling, when it’s noticeable two disparate forces are at work. Unlike other thematic Cirque shows that leave room for individual interpretation, “Drawn to Life” has a very specific story line, written by Michel Laprise, who also directed. At the top of the show, young budding artist Julie reads a letter from her deceased father, a Disney animator, and then sets out on a quest that takes her into the world of animation and imagination.

This creates a push and pull between Disney’s literal storytelling and Cirque’s evocative storytelling that doesn’t always gel. And while Disney wrote the book on mining emotion from parental death — who wasn’t traumatized by “Bambi” as a child? — here Disney references creep in where they don’t always need to be.

A sequence in which Julie’s mother magically dances with her late husband is powerful and moving — so it’s particularly jarring to see a cartoon mermaid appear as part of this display of adult love and loss. And the Disney musical cues in the score, appealing in short nostalgic bursts, have moments where they’re too prominent, pulling focus from the current story being told.

The “Drawn to Life” clowns, who support Julie, have less personality than many of their brethren — though depicting self-doubt as a living pile of discarded drawings is clever and effective imagery.

The pacing strangely slackens instead of building as the show approaches its climax, and the final number, featuring a team of acrobatic women who leap between two moving plank swings, delivers a female-empowerment message but lacks the pizazz of a larger-than-life, stage-filling showstopper.

Ultimately, “Drawn to Life” is probably exactly the show Disney and Cirque wanted — with its family-friendly and life-affirming vibe — and a show neither totally wanted, with the disparate storytelling ideas. That’s the nature of compromise and collaboration. But even with imperfections, “Drawn to Life” is a vibrant, ultimately uplifting salute to creativity, and that’s always worth celebrating.

{ SOURCE: The Orlando Sentinel }