Seeing Stars: a review of Cirque du Soleil's "IRIS"


    at the Kodak Theatre
    Hollywood & Highland

    Update: "IRIS" closed on Jan. 19, 2013, due to disappointing ticket sales.

    I will leave this page up for a while, for anyone interested in reading about the show.  But bear in mind that it was written while "IRIS" was still being presented on a regular basis.

    In addition, during the run of "IRIS", the Kodak Theatre has changed its name to the Dolby Theatre, after the Kodak company declared bankruptcy.

I don't normally review stage productions.

But since the new Cirque du Soleil show, "IRIS" is intended to be a permanent installation at the Kodak Theatre, in the very heart of Hollywood, it will become part of what Hollywood Boulevard has to offer visitors for years - perhaps decades - to come, beckoning tourists and locals alike.

Since the show takes place in the special theatre built especially for the annual Academy Awards, nestled between legendary Grauman's Chinese Theatre (with its star footprints in cement) and the popular Hollywood & Highland center, along the busiest stretch of the Hollywood tourist scene, the question can't be avoided:

Should visitors to Hollywood go to see "IRIS"? is a website dedicated to telling visitors the truth about Hollywood (for better or worse), so I feel compelled to answer that question.  Or at least offer my own, personal opinion - which is all any of us can do.

First, a few disclaimers.  Although I've been to more than my fair share of Broadway shows & musicals here in L.A., I've never before been to a Cirque du Soleil performance.

(To be honest, I usually find the whole winking mime thing somewhat off-putting.)

So I went into this show with no real preconceptions about what to expect, and (for better or worse) unable to compare it to previous Cirque shows that have passed through L.A., or been staged in other cities.

Also, for the record, I had a near-perfect seat for this performance: six rows back from the front, and almost dead center of the orchestra section (seat F-8, to be exact).

Those seats would be ideal for almost all other shows. But "IRIS" is such a large production, spilling out of the stage and into the space above the audience, that I think that seats a few rows farther back (perhaps rows I or J) might offer a slightly better perspective of the "bigger picture".  But they were fine seats.

And since I didn't see the show from one of the upper balconies (or opera boxes), I can't really comment on what the show would look like from above.

OK, with those details out of the way, we move on to the show.

Let's cut to the chase.  Did I like it?   Yes.  Very much.

Is it a perfect show?  No, it isn't.  There are a few rough edges that could be smoothed, a few buffoonish moments that should be discarded... cuts that could make it a near-perfect production. But it's still a pretty damn good show as it is.

I found myself smiling in admiration through much of the show's first half.  Not so much in the second act.

More about that later...

But first, here's a sample video that does a pretty good job of summing up the highlights:

The first thing you notice about "IRIS" is its surreal quality.

Even before the show starts, you're introduced to a number of bizarre-but-intriguing characters, wandering around off-stage, including a villainous fellow with a long whip for a hat, an almost-headless character with very big shoes, a living camera, and a girl wearing a praxinoscope skirt that displays moving pictures when she spins it.

Think Tim Burton meets Peter Max in a steampunk fantasy, with just a touch of Monty Python's Flying Circus thrown in.  (Not surprisingly, the show's very effective musical score was written by Danny Elfman, who has scored most of Burton's films.)

The show itself doesn't really have much of a storyline - and doesn't need one.

Oh, there's a bare bones thread about a young man (sort of a Buster Keaton/Harold Lloyd archetype) pursing a young starlet named "Scarlet" (despite the fact that she's a blond - go figure).

But for the most part, it is a series of acts and tableaux that make up a surrealistic celebration of the theme of Hollywood and movie-making.

It's more about ambiance than plot, more about painting pictures (both mental and visual) than telling stories.

Hollywood is its very general theme.  Don't expect to see references to particular stars or movies, because you won't.

The inspiration here is cinema in general, and that theme serves only as a starting point for the performances, dealing with broad cinematic genres, archetypes and locations.

What I truly enjoyed about the show was how (at its best) it managed to elevate traditional circus elements to an art form. To create an imaginative imagery and stunning visuals that seduce the soul.

The human eye (and heart) responds naturally to beauty, to structure, to aesthetic forms, in a special way that athletic performances alone cannot match. 

But it's the marriage of the two, of acrobatic skill and stunning visuals that make for this show's best moments.

In one jungle-themed scene, for instance, we have a quartet of female Chinese acrobats/contortionists, performing a routine not unlike acts I've seen often at the Los Angeles County Fair and other venues.

But through a combination of lighting, costuming, rear-projection, and elaborate stage dressing, Cirque manages to transform that relatively simple performance into a dazzling B&W work of art.

In one of the earliest acts, a pair of twin male aerialists, clad in white, defy gravity (and death), soaring overhead, holding onto straps in precarious positions in an intricate aerial ballet, plunging nearly into the audience, and swinging (almost flying) about the theatre in ways that would put the producers of Broadway's (now-closed) "Spider-Man" to shame.

The hi-tech on display here is also impressive (and contrasts nicely with the show's otherwise retro zeitgeist).  The best example is the use of infrared video capture to instantly project slightly delayed live, abstract images of the performers on scrims behind the characters. The effect is hypnotic at times.

And in the show's second half, there's a near-perfect moment when the boy ("Buster") simply spins and juggles a push-broom, while Scarlet performs a dynamic trapeze act overheard.

In lesser hands, it would be obvious that the boy's role is to act as a distraction, while the girl gets up to speed on the trapeze.  But between Buster's sublime talent with that simple broom, the stage dressing, lighting and music, the simple tableau becomes a moment of high art.

Primarily visual, "IRIS" is literally something that must be seen to be appreciated.  Like many good things, it is difficult to adequately put into words.

Is it perfect?  Unfortunately, no.

"IRIS" is at its weakest when it comes to their clowns.  Not traditional circus clowns, of course, but their more surrealistic French cousins.  A little of these buffoons go a long way.  They work best in very short appearances, on the sidelines.  When they take the spotlight, it almost always kills the pace (and quality) of the show.

This failing reaches its nadir in an abysmal parody on the Oscars ceremony.

Since "IRIS" is staged at the home of the Oscars, I suppose they couldn't resist, but honestly, it is awful - replete with a drag queen and some off-color gags.

( Even the best, hammy efforts of an over-enthusiastic fan, pulled from the audience to participate during the performance I attended, couldn't save this debacle.)

Likewise, a female clown, outfitted with a comically oversize rear end, exaggerated glasses, and Marge Simpson-styled hair, appears far too often for her own (or the show's) good.

As does the hobo-like fellow who is revealed when the big-footed character removes his head-concealing top hat.  (He should have kept the hat on, and preserved the mystery.)

Honestly, it's this sort of thing that made me stay away from Cirque for so long.

Fortunately, there aren't enough of these sophomoric antics to kill the show - they just diminish it.

My advice to the producers: lose the clowns.

Keep them only on the sidelines, as interesting bits of visual set dressing.  They add nothing to the show, and cost valuable time that could be devoted to another great acrobatic act or spectacular musical piece.

I'm sure I'm not the only critic to have told you this.  Listen to them.  Trim the fat, and you'll have a better, tighter show that will run for years.

Moving on, an ambitious number, staged on a traditional back-lot set of a NYC skyline (complete with rooftops and water towers) doesn't work quite as well as it should, despite its colorful setting.  But it is still entertaining.

Involving a movie-style running battle of sorts, it features performers falling from roofs, ricocheting off hidden trampolines, and bouncing right back again to where they started.  Initially, this is intriguing, but the same basic stunts are repeated a few too many times, and the number grows a bit weary before it ends.

The show regains much of its momentum at the finish, climaxing in an orgasmic burst of glitter and confetti that engulfs the audience, as a team of blue-clad aerialists spin high overheard.

My bottom-line recommendation?  See the show, if you can.

It is spectacular, and you'll leave with a smile on your face.

Which brings us to the problem of price.  Tickets for this show are $253 for the best matinee seats.  Most good seats (in the orchestra & mezzanines) are $123.  The relatively cheap seats (if you can call them that), cost $93, while the worst seats in the house go for $68 & $43.  [These prices are as of late 2011.]

If you are used to paying that kind of money for Broadway shows, then that shouldn't surprise you.  Buy your tickets and have fun.

But I suspect that the average tourist strolling down Hollywood Blvd, who might consider dropping into the Kodak to see "IRIS", may be shocked by how much they would have to shill out for admission.  Good seats for a family of four would cost over $550, by the time you factor in fees & parking.  Not exactly something that most families could afford as a spur-of-the-moment treat.

So, even though the Kodak Theatre and busy Hollywood Boulevard offers Cirque a constant parade of potential customers streaming by their door every day, they probably won't benefit much from the kind of impulse buys that are vital to other businesses on the Boulevard.

So, what about the venue?  What did I think of the Kodak Theatre?

The theatre itself is delightful, a glittering pastiche of Hollywood's glory days (complete with multiple balconies and opera boxes) that somewhat resembles an over-the-top version of the old-fashioned movie palaces that once lined L.A.'s own Broadway.  In its attempt to mimic a French opera house, the theatre's somewhat eccentric interior fits well with the Cirque mystique.

And, of course, no visitor is going to forget that this is the Kodak, the place where Hollywood's biggest stars gather each year for the Academy Awards.  I overheard the couple seated next to me musing about who might have sat in their seats before: "George Clooney?  Meryl Streep?", they wondered.  No doubt, many people will play that same guessing game.

But there are a couple of drawbacks.  One is that the seats aren't quite as comfortable as they should be (especially considering they were made for Hollywood royalty).  But that's a trivial matter, not enough to distract from the show.

A bigger letdown (and not something under the control of Cirque) was the lobby of the Kodak.

Given the venue, I was expecting something spectacular - but the Kodak's lobby here is surprisingly plain. compared to, say, the lobbies of the Orange County Performing Arts Center or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  They could take a lesson from those old movie palaces, which always offered a lavish visual welcome to visitors via their posh lobbies.

But to look at the positive side, the relative plainness of the lobby makes the theatre's interior an even more stunning surprise.

The bottom line is that Hollywood Boulevard has added yet another top-notch attraction to its ranks.  And this one adds something badly needed to the Hollywood/Highland area: live performance.  The Boulevard has always offered movies,  museums, restaurants, the Walk of Fame, and those famous footprints in cement - but until now, it was rare to find a live show, especially one of this quality and ambition.  On a street known for its fame, but not necessarily for its class, the arrival of "IRIS" is a development worth applauding - both literally and figuratively.

"IRIS" adds one more layer to the ongoing Hollywood renaissance, a grand $100 million layer, which will make visiting Hollywood a much richer experience. (At least, for those who can afford it.)

[For more information and tickets, go to ]

Getting there: From the Hollywood Freeway, take the Hollywood Blvd and drove west about a mile, to the Hollywood & Highland center, which will be on your right. 

Alternatively, get off the Hollywood Freeway on Sunset, go west to Orange Drive, and turn right (north) to the center.

Once on foot, from street level on Hollywood Blvd, the Kodak is reached via a long, mall-like corridor that leads back north to the theatre entrance.  Look for the Kodak entrance - you can't miss it.

Looking for something in particular? Search the Seeing-Stars website!

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