The cast of Cirque du Soleil's Paramour, directed by Philippe Decouflé, at Broadway's Lyric Theatre.
The cast of Cirque du Soleil's Paramour, directed by Philippe Decouflé, at Broadway's Lyric Theatre.
(© Richard Termine)

You've never seen anything quite like Paramour, Cirque du Soleil's Broadway debut at the Lyric Theatre. In truth, that's both a good and a bad thing. While the Montreal-based circus behemoth has been thrilling New York audiences for years, it has never taken the Broadway plunge (coming closest with 2010's Banana Shpeel, a lackluster riff on vaudeville that played the Beacon Theater). Paramour arrives like a cannonball into the deep end, incorporating circus wizardry into a fairly traditional Broadway musical. With admirable ambition (but occasionally ham-fisted execution), Cirque du Soleil delivers a show that is acrobatic, operatic, and completely entertaining. This is musical theater as an extreme sport.

That's obvious from the very first number, "The Hollywood Wiz," in which tumblers do backflips around a chorus line of dancers who introduce us to AJ Golden (Jeremy Kushnier), the director prince of Hollywood's golden age. When he fires screen vixen Lila (Kat Cunning), he needs a new star. He finds one at an L.A. nightclub — Indigo (the delightfully named Ruby Lewis) — a fresh-faced chanteuse from Indiana. AJ recognizes her star quality and immediately casts her in a series of big-budget films. He wants Indigo all for himself, but she still harbors a secret love for songwriter Joey (Ryan Vona). This love triangle flimsily plays out amid some of the best circus performance on Earth.

Philippe Decouflé directs a stage show for a generation accustomed to viewing life with multiple tabs open: The juggling and contortion never seem to stop. This highly stimulating barrage of talent is undeniably entertaining. When it comes to telling a story, however, it's deadly.

For instance, as Lewis sings a fairly standard "I Want" song ("Something More"), our eyes are drawn to dancers on the tables, the bartender balancing bottles upstage, and a man with a Chinese yo-yo. There are at least five things happening onstage that are more interesting than Indigo's song, which is a real problem considering she's supposed to have, "It...That thing that makes the rest of the world look only at you." Not in this show, she doesn't.

Ruby Lewis plays Indigo, Jeremy Kushnier plays AJ, and Ryan Vona plays Joey in Paramour.
Ruby Lewis plays Indigo, Jeremy Kushnier plays AJ, and Ryan Vona plays Joey in Paramour.
(© Joan Marcus)

By adopting so many elements of the Broadway book musical, Cirque du Soleil makes clear it fully intends to operate within the form to present a brand-new story, though not always to great success. While the "story" credit in the program is given to West Hyler, no one is taking ownership of the limp book, suggesting a team effort. This is probably for the best since the script overflows with cliché and the jokes are mostly ho-hum. With a straight face, Kushnier has to say groan-worthy lines like, "It was a speakeasy full of broken dreams and busted knuckles."

Matching the script, Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard's music sounds like warmed-over Phantom and Miss Saigon, made even cheesier by Andreas Carlsson's "good enough" pop lyrics. Lewis belts her face off singing, "Why does the girl / Who has Everything / Still have a heart / That's Questioning?" Meanwhile, drones disguised as lampshades fly overhead. Were this number entered into the Eurovision Song Contest, it would definitely win 12 points from Moldova…but it's unlikely to garner any Tony Awards.

Still, the moldy book and creaky score serve to obscure just how truly innovative this show actually is. We remember Show Boat and Oklahoma! for their revolutionary integration: the way they used acting, singing, and dancing in tandem to tell a story. Cirque du Soleil reaches for an exciting brass ring by attempting to add circus performance to that mix in a manner that goes far beyond Diane Paulus' auteur's revival of Pippin. Paramour was written and designed specifically with the intention of using circus performance to tell a new story, and occasionally, it succeeds in doing just that, to thrilling effect.

Martin Charrat, Myriam Deraiche, and Samuel William Charlton perform a trapeze love triangle in Paramour.
Martin Charrat, Myriam Deraiche, and Samuel William Charlton perform a trapeze love triangle in Paramour.
(© Richard Termine)

The most notable example comes in the second-act number "Love Triangle," in which the three leads sing about their complicated relationship while their acrobatic avatars perform a three-way dance on the trapeze. Shana Carroll choreographs every move to illuminate Indigo's tough decision. As circus Indigo (a fabulously flexible Myriam Deraiche) is practically torn in two by the muscular men (Martin Charrat and Samuel William Charlton), Lewis breaks out her "Queen of the Night" operatic soprano. All of the arts collide in a gorgeous explosion.

Unfortunately, most pieces (including the ones we're likeliest to remember) are not so seamlessly incorporated: The show's most impressive act, Andrew Atherton and Kevin Atherton's aerial-strap routine, is shoehorned into the Cleopatra scene for lack of a better place. Still, it's such a magnificent display that we're glad it's there. The Atherton twins fly high above the audience, really giving a workout to the Spider-Man infrastructure that still pervades the Lyric. Their every move is lyrical and precise, as if they were operating with one mind. It's no surprise that, at the curtain call, the standing ovation arrives for them.

Decouflé attempts to marshal the design in a manner that is simultaneously spectacular and beneficial to the story, with varying degrees of success. Jean Rabasse cleverly disguises acrobatic equipment in his hulking art-deco sets. Costume designer Philippe Guillotel masterfully integrates breathable synthetic fabrics into credible period looks from Hollywood's golden age. Sadly, the mise-en-scène is undermined by Olivier Simola and Christophe Waksmann's hyperactive projections, which too often resemble an avant-garde bar mitzvah video. And while he does wonders with the Lyric's surround sound, designer John Shivers can't seem to eliminate a bothersome echo in the vocal amplification.

In the end, Paramour feels like something much older than Oklahoma!, but completely native to 42nd Street: the Ziegfeld Follies. With glittering costumes, beautiful performers, and monumental sets, Paramour is pure spectacle — and that should be perfectly welcome on Broadway.