'Twas the Night Before...': Theater Review

Twas the Night Before - Publicity - H 2019
Errisson Lawrence
Holiday fun, Cirque du Soleil-style.

Cirque du Soleil presents its first Christmas-themed show, inspired by Clement Clarke Moore's classic poem 'A Visit From Saint Nicholas' and featuring an array of acrobatic and aerial acts.

One thought came to mind while watching the first Christmas-themed production by Cirque du Soleil.

What in the world took them so long?

The idea seems a natural for the juggernaut French Canadian circus company, which has exploited practically every other concept imaginable for its dozens of productions since its 1984 founding. This show, now playing at New York City's Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden after a world premiere in Chicago, reveals the company in a refreshingly non-pretentious, unbloated mode. Running a fleet 77 intermissionless minutes, 'Twas the Night Before… delivers terrific holiday entertainment that should delight children and adults alike.

Inspired, of course, by Clement Clarke Moore's A Visit From Saint Nicholas, the show begins with a father (Alexis Vigneault) attempting to read that classic 1823 poem to his headphone-wearing daughter Isabella (Michelle Clark). Kids being kids, she's much more interested in her iPad, causing him to leave in a snowstorm-surrounded huff.

Cue the procession of terrific acts, gussied up with holiday-inspired costumes and lights and accompanied by a soundtrack of original music and Yuletide classics delivered in decidedly modern arrangements. You'll have to strain to associate the routines with references from the poem, but literal interpretation is hardly Cirque's raison d'être.

Instead, simply take in the pleasures of such performers as Nicole Faubert and Guillaume Paquin, dressed to look like shimmering snowflakes, performing a dazzling aerial act involving straps. Or the supremely agile Katharine Arnold, who does an exotic routine on a flying luggage cart (yes, a luggage cart). Or Rosie Axon and Adam Jukes, who threaten to fly off the stage during their athletic, romance-infused Rollerblading act.

Even if you're allergic to clowns, you're likely to be enchanted by the nonthreatening Francis Gadbois, who exhibits expert juggling skills and later, clad in pajamas, brings a female audience member onstage for a hilarious encounter involving preparations for Santa Claus' arrival. There's a quartet of dazzling diabolo-slinging performers, hoop divers charmingly outfitted as reindeer and a choreographed snowball fight in which the audience takes part. It's all enough to inspire even the cynical Isabella, who displays her newfound holiday spirit through the use of hula hoops. There's not a moment's lull in the fast-paced production staged by James Hadley, thanks to the energetic, hip-hop flavored dance numbers between the acts that provide delightful connective tissue.

The talented folks at Cirque always manage to find ways to infuse even the most familiar-feeling circus routines with abundant freshness. That's certainly the case here, thanks not only to the accomplished international ensemble, but also the terrific design elements, including James Lavoie's delightful costumes, Genevieve Lizotte's tinsel-inspired set design and Nicolas Brion's candy-colored lighting. Even more amazingly, the acts frequently carry an unexpected emotional charge, such as Vigneault's gorgeous "aerial lamp" routine, which feels balletic in its intensity.

'Twas the Night Before... enters a very crowded field, since there's not exactly a shortage of holiday shows vying for those generous parental dollars each and every year (you can't throw a rock in New York City without hitting one). Nonetheless, the production, bolstered by the renowned Cirque brand and an inherent creative flexibility that should make freshening the formula from year to year an easy proposition, could well become an annual wintertime staple. It certainly stands a better chance than the company's Wintuk, a seasonal show that ran for several years at the same venue, which managed to capture the bleakness of the holiday season rather than the magic.

Venue: Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, New York
Cast: Tuedon Ariri, Katharine Arnold, Rosie Axon, Adam Jukes, Ming-En Chen, Tsung-Ying Lin, Ting-Chung Wang, Chia-Hao Yu, Michele Clark, Nicole Faubert, Guillaume Paquin, Francis Gadbois, Quentin Greco, Jacob Gregorie, Chauncey Kroner, Timothe Vincent, Jinge Wang, Evan Tomlinson Weintraub, Alexis Vigneault, Jenna, Beltran, Samuel Moore, Paul Ross, Diana Schoenfield, Bianca Valler, Kalila Hermant
Director-writer: James Hadley
Producer: Jayna Neagle
Executive producer: Marie-Josee Adam
Choreographer: Vinh Nguyen Kinjaz
Acrobatic choreographer and performance designer: Edisia Moreno
Music: Jean-Phi Goncalves
Set designer: Genevieve Lizotte
Costume designer: James Lavoie
Lighting designer: Nicolas Brion
Sound designer: Ben Scheff
Presented by Cirque du Soleil, The Madison Square Garden Company