Confession time before we delve into Thursday night’s Cirque du Soleil production of “Toruk: The First Flight” at Save Mart Center: I’ve never seen “Avatar.”
How does one miss a $2 billion movie? Not sure, it seemed awfully preachy to me – humans are evil and exploitative and predatory and all that. Again. Yawn. Plus, they were searching for an element called unobtainium. C’mon.
But the “Avatar”-inspired “Toruk,” which is Cirque’s 27th original show and set 3,000 years before the 22nd-century events of “Avatar,” was quite the visual spectacle, and frankly, I’m not sure how much you need to follow the slightly complicated story to enjoy it.
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If you must know, the story is about several tribes of the Na’vi, the blue creatures who live on a moon called Pandora (c’mon again) in a sort of aboriginal state, a very joyous and rhythmic and aerial and spiritual and acrobatic and drummy existence, to be sure. The first lad we meet is The Storyteller (Na’rrator?), portrayed by Canadian Raymond O’Neill, who apparently has a rather staggeringly heavy script, reminiscent of Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds.”
There are times when you want to say, “Shhhhhh. I want to watch this.”
A shaman (Priscillia Le Foll of France, at least later when she sings) from the Omatikaya tribe sees a terrible vision of lava destroying the Tree of Souls, apparently the most important living thing on Pandora, as it somehow connects the Na’vi to Eywa, their god or Great Mother. Two Omatikaya boys named Ralu (Jeremiah Hughes) and Entu (Guillaume Paquin) and a girl from another tribe, Tsyal (Zoe Sabattie of France) set out on a mystical quest to defeat a volcano (a daunting task indeed, unless you’re Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche in “Volcano”). They must gather five talismans from five different tribes of Na’vi, then ride a titular Toruk to the Tree of Souls and save the day.
One problem is that, while apparently the Na’vi had practically tamed Toruks into virtual Ubers by the time of “Avatar,” no one had ever ridden one in the days of “Toruk.”
So on we go, visiting various tribes for gymnastics, dance, music and battle. I can’t remember them all, but we have the Pole Vault tribe, the See-Saw on Dinosaur Bones tribe, the Kite-flying tribe and a couple of others.
As many a fine magician has said, it’s the visuals, man. And man, are they stunning. The show takes up most of the floor of the Save Mart Center, save one end which appears to be a giant cliff. Visual effects are projected onto the surface of “Pandora” with tremendous skill and creativity. I thought the visual climax was toward the end, as the red lava spread toward the beautifully illuminated Tree of Souls, and the Na’vi attempted to save the tree with a flood that came cascading down the “cliff” and spread across the ground, all with lights. Amazing.
While the performers were obviously tremendously athletic and moved the story along very well, and the “Lion King”-like puppetry was remarkable, I think the real heroes here are Neilson Vignola, creative director, and Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, writers, directors and multimedia directors. To even create a show like this is one thing, to be able to move it from place to place is another.
The overly narrated story (I’m told this is Cirque’s most ardent attempt at creating an actual start-to-finish story) drags a little at times and from time to time one wonders how parkour and acrobatics will kill a volcano, but overall the experience is a joy. I overheard many people (about two-thirds of the seats were filled Thursday, Oct. 27, on opening night) talking about how much they enjoyed it as we walked out of the arena. From what I have heard, the “Avatar” story probably held together a little better because it was an environmental story with evil white guys as the foil. Battling nature doesn’t hold together as well.
It most certainly ends on a high note and the performers received a standing ovation. If James Cameron is the new Andrew Lloyd Webber, here’s to “Titanic: The Musical.” No wait, “Terminator 2: Melt the Silver Dude.”
But in a word, “Toruk” is stunning. Don’t think too hard, just go and be stunned. Give it a try. You won’t be blue.
Kent Gaston: 559-441-6309
Toruk: The First Flight
- Runs through Sunday, Oct. 30
- Save Mart Center