Jeremy Daniel
Aubry D'Arminio
June 29, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s difficult to give a bad review to a production that features performers who risk breaking their necks in order to entertain you. At least, it is for this reviewer. But here it goes: After a disastrous run at the Beacon Theatre last year with the intimate, vaudeville-inspired Banana Shpeel, Canada’s Cirque du Soleil is back in New York with the vaster, steampunk-infused rock opera Zarkana in cavernous Radio City Music Hall. As you might have guessed, bigger isn’t always better.

The Cirque team, that bastion of grotesque body contortions and amazing acrobatics, has committed $50 million to the new two-hour production, which features 11 musical numbers and a cast of 75 performing the usual feats of flipping and bending, swirling about and flying. In one particularly impressive move, an acrobat balances a ladder on his head while his wife perches on top and his daughter does upside down splits nearby. In another, a woman in hot pants leaps and somersaults off a combination tightrope/trampoline called the Russian Bar.

There are lots of gray-and-white clowns — two play the squeeze box, one is pregnant, and one falls into a gigantic bottle and turns into a rather frightening video projection of a white-haired baby with six arms. Upended furniture rights itself. An out-of-this-world extraterrestrial light display suggests where a good chunk of the production budget was probably spent.

But when grouped all together, Zarkana‘s effects are just way too much — especially since a lot of the action seems to be happening at the same time. It’s difficult to focus on the intricate (and very real) fire effects at the back of the stage when in the foreground two men are walking a tightrope while holding a third on a chair. It also doesn’t help that some of the show’s most unusual performances (by a wonderful, perky red-haired tap-dancing female juggler and a solemn Singaporean ”sand painter,” Cirque’s first) are buried like second-rate sideshows at the beginning of the two acts.

There are also vague hints of an overarching story line, something about a magician named Zark (usually played by Canadian pop singer Garou, though my performance featured understudy Paul Bisson) who has lost both his powers and his great love, the slinky Lia (Cassiopée on most nights, but Meetu Chilanu on mine). But this wisp of a plot fails to weave the disparate acts together, and it’s hampered by terrible original songs by Elton John protégé Nick Littlemore (sample lyrics include: ”Your voice is the very texture of memory” and ”Welcome to my funeral, please dance with me”) with loud, grating musical accompaniment. The final song, an anthem to fixing the world through revolution, seems to come completely out of nowhere. C-

(Tickets: or 800-745-3000)

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