The "Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy" program lists the nationalities of each performer, with seven countries represented among the 28-member cast. That's four fewer than the number of languages included (with accompanying flags) on the promotional posters outside the theater. "Jungle Fantasy," created and directed by Neil Goldberg, is clearly designed to lure the foreign tourists who have of late been lured to wordless off-Broadway fare such as "Jump," "Stomp," and "Fuerzabruta." What will they see here? A set that looks like something Stoner Smurf might have had airbrushed on his minivan, for one thing, and a truly impressive group of acrobats, gymnasts, and contortionists. These men and women all seem to have far more muscles and far fewer bones than you or I, although one's retinas may feel like they've had a workout after two hours of Lenora Taylor and Santiago Rojo's garish Day-Glo costumes. Think of "Jungle Fantasy" as an all-natural way for kids to replicate Seth Rogen's mushroom-induced Cirque du Soleil freak-out in "Knocked Up."
Speaking of Cirque du Soleil, it bears pointing out that Cirque Dreams is in no way affiliated with its fellow nouveau-circus purveyor; in fact, the older and better-known company unsuccessfully fought for legal trademark protection over the word "cirque." These two entities, each of which has spun off numerous iterations, have several common elements: rubber-limbed contortionists, underdeveloped central concepts, the sort of crotch-nuzzling cantilevering that frequently earns hoots of derision as NBA halftime entertainment.
The main difference is a noticeable gap in musical quality. Cirque du Soleil has elevated its game musically of late, most notably with its Beatles-themed "Love." But even its most banal New Agey noodlings compare favorably to the appalling "Jungle Fantasy" score by Jill Winter and a half-dozen co-writers. As Mother Nature, the melismatic-at-all-costs Jill Diane handles the vocals with considerably more exertion than inspiration, while the consistently vapid lyrics inspire envy for the audience members who speak one of those other 10 languages. Her consort is Soultree (Jared Burnett), a Fabio-esque violinist with a tree trunk in lieu of legs. (Half Chippendales, half Chippendale?)
This may offer a sense of just how tangentially the jungle theme has been integrated into the more typical circus fare. Mr. Goldberg's standard ploy is to put his acrobats center stage and flank them with a small handful of costumed animals who meander through and/or do a low-grade dance step. A wide-eyed protagonist named the Adventurer (the engaging Marcello Balestracci), ostensibly plucked from the audience, joins in here and there before ceding the stage to the headliners. Cirque Dreams has logged many hours on the casino circuit (look for "Pandemonia" at Foxwoods and "Holidaze" at Mohegan Sun later this year), and "Jungle Fantasy" would actually benefit from being hacked down to the 90-minute "tab versions" that Las Vegas prefers.
But Cirque events are a notable exception to the rule that shows are only as good as their weakest link — the music and concept pretty much always pull up the rear. Everything rides on the physical feats, and the vast majority of those in "Jungle Fantasy" are daring enough and clever enough to captivate audiences of all ages without overstaying their welcome. From the tiny Mongolian contortionists (sorry, Contorting Lizards) to the enormous Russian strongmen (oops, Jungle Kings), these gifted specimens execute their routines with a sharp eye for pacing and a minimum of pandering. An early bout of double-dutch jump-roping expands into triple and, amazingly, quadruple dutch, and the second act boosts the "wow" quotient even higher with an eye-catching trapeze duo and a pair of zoot-suited giraffes (Vladimir Dovgan and Anatoliy Yeniy), who navigate uncanny balancing acts on a variety of cylinders and platforms.
My 11-year-old companion concurred, citing "the flexible parts" as her favorites. Her 7-year-old sister found more to appreciate in the jungle theme: "I like the frog part, when all the frogs came out." I barely remembered the frogs until I rechecked the program: They crouched on either side of a long-armed juggler. He was from Ukraine, and he was dressed in green.
Until August 24 (1681 Broadway, between 52nd and 53rd streets, 212-239-6200).