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Review: ‘Varekai’ by Cirque du Soleil a first-class ticket to flight

Forget those wings of wax and feathers. Icarus — aka the cocky guy in the Greek myth who flew too close to the sun and plunged into the sea — should have skipped the hubris (and the rudimentary aerodynamics) and gone straight to Cirque du Soleil auditions. He’s that good at aerial ballet.

In the spiffy Cirque production “Varekai,” which opened Wednesday at Save Mart Center with the customary polish and vigor we’ve come to expect from the franchise, Icarus gets a second chance. Instead of death in the watery depths, Icarus instead falls into an enchanted forest filled with fantastical creatures who follow him on his hard path to redemption.

Cirque shows all have some sort of narrative premise, but I’ve come to realize over the years from attending the touring shows coming through Fresno that the storyline is often flimsy. It doesn’t do much good to try to focus on the narrative. The strength of Cirque shows is the combination of daring acts, ravishing costumes, slick production values and the surreal ambiance of the whole package.

But “Varekai” actually does have a storyline sturdy enough to carry through to the end. Sure, it’s all still mostly an excuse to gape at amazingly pliable humans accomplishing amazing feats of skill, plus light-hearted interludes featuring hard-working Cirque clowns, but this show more than any other Cirque offering I’ve seen feels rounded and complete thanks to the Icarus story.

It helps that the character of Icarus delivers some of the show’s most daring and graceful moments. When he falls from the sky, you think at first he’s a goner. His limp body, wrapped in a dense burlaplike material, looks ready for the grave as it rises slowly above the Cirque stage.

Then the “shroud” opens like a cocoon, and when Icarus emerges, the material transforms into a net. Swooping through the air, relying on upper-body strength alone to perform perilous contortions far above the stage, it’s a marvel.

The aerial antics are the production’s highlights, from a stunning single-point trapeze act almost guaranteed to raise your blood pressure to the sweeping synchronicity of two men performing with aerial straps.

Eye candy is a big part of the Cirque experience, and “Varekai” has some memorable visuals: A flotilla of bright pink, blue and green sea creatures clad in spiky tight costumes that make each performer look like a cross between a sea horse and a rubber dog toy. A phalanx of creepy looking, hunched-over phantoms. Aerialists swinging about with swept-back black shellacked helmet hair that suggests a beehive ’do in a 50 mph convertible, all bathed in a blood-red spotlight.

What impresses me about the show is that it seems a tarter, friskier experience than most of the other Cirque offerings I’ve seen. It balances its lighter and darker stylistic elements — a sometimes wearying staple of the Cirque experience — in a way that doesn’t seem ponderous.

And it helps that the “clowns” in the show aren’t the weird, surly (and often vaguely menacing) Cirque characters that I’ve grown to know and, frankly, sometimes loathe.

The comic relief in this show is my favorite by far.

Here’s to Cirque once again flying high.

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