Run Away and Join the Cirque?

"OVO," the Portuguese word for “egg,” puts audiences into a colorful ecosystem teeming with life in an imaginary Brazilian rain forest

click to enlarge "OVO" has been called “ 'A Bug’s Life' meets Ziggy Stardust.” - Photo: Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
Photo: Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
"OVO" has been called “ 'A Bug’s Life' meets Ziggy Stardust.”
Perhaps you’ve heard that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is shutting down. I suppose it’s outlived its popularity, but it surely entertained people for years. Does this mean the phenomenon of the circus is over? Not really. There’s a singular counter-example in town this week: Cirque du Soleil.

Its arena show OVO performs at U.S. Bank Arena Thursday through Sunday.

A prior version of OVO was here in March 2011, a “Big Top” production using a tent as its venue. Set up at Old Coney, several performances were canceled due to the Ohio River flooding. Despite all our recent rain, that won’t happen this year in the downtown arena.

OVO, the Portuguese word for “egg,” puts audiences into a colorful ecosystem teeming with life in an imaginary Brazilian rain forest. Performers portray insects that work, eat, crawl, flutter, play, fight and look for love in a nonstop riot of energy and movement. One reviewer called the show “A Bug’s Life meets Ziggy Stardust.” When a mysterious egg appears in their midst, the insects are awestruck and curious about the iconic object that represents the cycles of their lives. 

The story provides architecture for OVO’s 50 dazzling performers from a dozen countries — acrobats, gymnasts, athletes and clowns — who tell a sweet story about love, energy and movement. One of the wonders of Cirque shows is their universal appeal to both the young and old, as well as to people from many cultures. It’s a remarkable formula for success.

There’s no reason to fret that circuses are dying off. In fact, Cirque du Soleil continues to grow. I spent several days in Las Vegas in February, where I saw three of the seven Cirque shows permanently installed there: Love (using music by the Beatles), O (a mind-boggling production employing a giant onstage pool) and KÀ (more on that in a moment). After four decades, Cirque today produces 21 shows, many in revolving, touring repertoire, using 1,300 performing artists from nearly 50 different countries on six continents. They’ve entertained more than 160 million spectators.

Among Cirque’s nearly 4,000 employees is one with strong ties to Cincinnati: Richard Oberacker. I talked to him during my trip to Vegas. He grew up here, graduating from Turpin High School and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. A musical phenomenon as a teen, he studied acting at CCM, performed in shows and played keyboards for several Broadway productions and tours. He joined Cirque in 1998 as a conductor to help create Dralion, a touring show. The first American musician hired by Cirque, he oversaw the show’s music for three years. He left for the orchestra pit of Lion King on Broadway. 

Cirque lured Oberacker back for the creation of , no easy task since he loved working on the big Broadway hit. But  was proposed as an incredibly spectacular production — Cirque’s first narratively driven show conceived by the Canadian playwright and director Robert Lepage. 

Oberacker got in as ’s musical director when it opened in 2004. “I thought if they can pull off half of (what they claimed), I would be stupid to turn this down,” he says. “This show is a massive leap forward in engineering, in imagination, in video concept and humans interacting with video.”

Thirteen years later, Oberacker continues to be engaged and stimulated by . But Cirque has also given him the flexibility to pursue his own creations as the composer of musicals staged at top regional theaters, including Ace at the Cincinnati Playhouse in 2006. His biggest theatrical break yet is happening in New York right now: Bandstand, his first musical on Broadway. A comedy-drama set after the end of World War II, it features Oberacker’s Swing-infused score.

The production, directed by another Cincinnatian, Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton’s Tony-winning choreographer), opened April 26 and it’s been nominated for two Tony Awards, including for the orchestrations of music that Oberacker composed. “Doing this is something I’ve been working for since I was very, very young,” he says. 

Running away to join the circus might not be such a far-fetched idea.

Cirque du Soleil’s OVO runs Thursday-Sunday at U.S. Bank Arena. More info:

About The Author

Rick Pender

RICK PENDER has written about theater for CityBeat since its first issues in 1994. Before that he wrote for EveryBody’s News. From 1998 to 2006 he was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor. Retired from a long career in public relations, he’s still a local arts fan, providing readers (and public radio listeners)...
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