Zarkana

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With good reason, Cirque du Soleil's shows are consistently hailed as grand spectacle, and "Zarkana" is no different. Yet this time, underneath all the wondrous acrobatics, costumes, and sets and the cacophonous score, there's a romantic heartbeat.

The story revolves around Zark the magician (Garou). Dressed in a bright red cape and top hat, he stalks the stage like a dark-eyed version of Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter. Locked away for 80 years in an abandoned theater, he has lost his magic powers as well as the love of his life, Lia (Cassiopée). Awakening, Zark is determined to regain them both.

He goes on a quest into the bowels of the old theater, where he quickly meets an array of magical creatures in a surreal and forbidding landscape. These include four sirens—the lady of vines, the lady of snakes, the lady of spiders, and the pickled lady (all played by Cassiopée). Seeking redemption, Zark engages with each of these sinister creatures. He also encounters a pair of lovable clowns called Hocus and Pocus (Daniel Passer, Wayne Wilson), who offer some much-needed comic relief. In between these scenes, acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, and high-wire acts perform Cirque's stock assortment of death-defying feats of skill.

Unlike recent Cirque shows in New York that tended to paint in pastel colors, "Zarkana" chooses a much darker hue. Writer-director François Girard, perhaps best known for the art-house film "The Red Violin," does a terrific job creating an emotional underpinning to this mythical story, echoing bits of everything from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" to "Alice in Wonderland" to "The Odyssey." The character of Zark is actually closer in spirit to Shakespeare's Prospero than the childlike protagonists of "Kooza," "Ovo," and "Wintuk."

But the highlight of the show is the work of the two leads. Garou commands the stage and sings with a surplus of passion. Cassiopée, who often performs hanging in midair in elaborate costumes, brings vibrancy to each of the five characters she plays, at times evoking a tinge of Magenta from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" in her voice.

While Cirque's acrobatic performers are as impressive as always, they lose something on the gigantic stage at Radio City Music Hall. So far from the audience and intermingled with such a massive array of set pieces, the acrobatics start to become just one more part of the background. Even the clowns lose the immediacy of the circus tent, where they can interact much more easily with the audience.

Set and props designer Stéphane Roy uses every inch of Radio City's cavernous stage to terrific effect, especially in concert with the eye-popping digital visuals created by Raymond St-Jean. The set design's surrealism owes much to painters René Magritte and Salvador Dali.

Billed as an "acrobatic rock opera," "Zarkana" actually has much in common with Broadway shows like "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" and "American Idiot," which utilize a minimal plot, intricate flying, loud rock music, and flashy physical production. But it's hard to say whether Cirque is getting closer to them or vice versa.

Presented by iShares and Cirque du Soleil at Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Sixth Ave., NYC. June 29–Oct. 8. Tue.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri., Sat., and Sun., 2 p.m. (866) 858-0008 or www.ticketmaster.com.