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Review: ‘Saloon’ at the Merriam Theater

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Montreal’s Cirque Éloize explodes on stage at the Merriam Theater with a two-day run of its touring production of Saloon, presented collaboratively by the Kimmel Center and the Shubert Organization for Broadway Philadelphia. Under the creative direction of Jeannot Painchaud (the company’s President and Artistic Director), the rip-roaring show, set in the Wild West, combines old-time archetypes and situations that will keep you laughing, live country music and dancing that will have you clapping your hands and tapping your feet, and thrilling acrobatics that will leave you on the edge of your seat.

The cast, in the saloon. Photo by Jim Mneymneh.

Director Emmanuel Guillaume maintains a rapid-fire pace as he moves his multi-disciplinary troupe of eleven lively performers around the stage, up to the heights, and into the audience, through a series of humorous action-packed vignettes. From the construction of a new railroad line to mining for gold, from a dramatic chase scene to a climactic duel, the original “musical acrobatic adventure” of westward expansion, inspired by the typical characters and plots of popular Westerns on TV and in the movies, relates imagined stories from the early history of a fictional American town and its settlers, who come together for drinking and romance, playing and fighting, in the titular honky-tonk.

Among the show’s signature circus feats, designed and head-coached by Nicolas Boivin-Gravel, are sequences on Chinese pole, Cyr wheel, aerial straps, and Korean plank, hand-to-hand acrobatics and juggling, and western-style whip-cracking and lassoing. Despite some shaky moments and a few mishaps on opening night, the engaging troupe dazzles with its strength, grace, and agility in the demanding daredevil skills. Along with the acrobatic segments, the ensemble performs well-synchronized dance numbers, with witty choreography by Annie St-Pierre that references everything from square dance and stomping to disco and Bollywood, and mimes such easily recognizable movements as firing a gun, striking a match, and the effects caused by gusts of wind entering the saloon as its doors swing open.

All of the physical action is done to the beat of country-western and folk music, with arrangements by Music Director and Composer Eloi Painchaud. The songs—including traditional hits like “Crazy,” “Ring of Fire,” “Cotton Eye Joe,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”–are played to perfection and sung in harmony by the tuneful trio of Ben Nesrallah, Sophie Beaudet, and Trevor Pool as The Vultures, with the rest of the talented ensemble—Justine Methé Crozat, Alastair Davies, Jérôme Hugo, Jérémy Saint-Jean Picard, Félix Pouliot, Johan Prytz, Jules Trupin, and Shena Tschofen–joining in on some.

A top-notch artistic team lends its support by masterfully evoking the sights and sounds of the Old West. Francis Farley’s multi-level wooden framework efficiently serves as the setting for both the outdoor railroad construction site and the interior of the eponymous bar, while an upright piano quickly converts into the engine of a train. Sarah Balleux costumes the cast in authentic western-style jeans, chaps, suspenders, holsters, and cowboy hats and boots, and Virginie Bachand provides apropos makeup for the characters. Soundscape Designer Colin Gagné creates the integral effects of gunshots and animal noises, and dramatic lighting by Francis Hamel captures the darkness of night, the brightness of daytime, and the glow of a fire.

The cast, constructing the railroad. Photo by Jim Mneymneh.

Following its short stay in Philadelphia, Cirque Éloize heads westward to Texas in February with its entertaining production of Saloon, then continues its 2017 tour throughout the US and Canada.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

 Saloon plays through Saturday, January 14, 2017, at Cirque Éloize, performing at the Merriam Theater – 250 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.

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