Fits of magic and merriment in ‘A Magical Cirque Christmas’ at the National

All circus spectacles depend on balance. When it comes to daring acrobatic feats, A Magical Cirque Christmas, produced by MagicSpace Entertainment and now running through the weekend at The National Theatre, has it in spades, never more so than in a showstopping act near the finale that will leave audiences shaking their heads in wonder. Unfortunately, the show as a whole never quite keeps its disparate parts on an even keel, which cuts some of their distinct charm.

Lucy Darling in ‘A Magical Cirque Christmas.’ Photo by Jon-ChristianAshby.

At its core, A Magical Cirque Christmas is a collection of circus routines, comical magic acts, and seasonal tunes, all wrapped up in a holiday pastiche. By and large, each element has enough quality to stand on its own. Host Lucy Darling (Carisa Hendrix’s stage persona) performs a series of cheeky illusions, some of them projected on a screen to show off her impressive sleight of hand. Audri Bartholomew, the company’s resident chanteuse, starts subdued but grows in confidence as she works through the holiday pop standards and mainstay hymns, topping it off with a rousing rendition of “Silent Night.” Apart from a few minor foibles, the acrobats work through their repertoire with ease. Christopher Stoinev’s juggling suffers when overcome with balls and hoops but is redeemed with a silky routine featuring flashy LED bowling pins. Aerialists Itzel Salvatierra, Nicky Faubert, and Olivier Belzile take to the sky with ease while winch operator and supporting cast member Vlada Romanova provides the appropriate counterbalance. Scott Cooper ably supports the contortionist and archer Aryn Shelander. David Locke on the Cyr wheel and Kevin de Marco on the hula hoops show admirable dexterity and poise, if a bit of discomfort at holding the stage alone (more on that later). The standout is Jonathan Rinny, who wows first on a series of bicycles and perilously tall unicycles, and then on an even more perilous stack of tubes, balls, platforms, and skateboards that truly sets the heart racing.

Oleksiy Alex Mruz on the Rola Bola in ‘A Magical Cirque Christmas.’

Strange as it might seem, the whole evening would likely work better if that were all there was to it: a hodgepodge of bits, stunts, and musical numbers united by a digital holiday backdrop and candy cane–striped outfits. Instead, director and creator Louanne Madorma and co-creators Jim Millan and Carisa Hendrix attempt to stitch it altogether with a flimsy story about a mysterious figure called the Guardian of Time (Stoinev), who fails to kick the season into gear because he is not feeling that special holiday spirit. It’s up to Lucy Darling, apparently some sort of time-traveling sprite, to fix the problem, which she does through a series of stilted interactions with the largely voiceless “characters” and the occasional bout of repartee with the audience. It all leads to a trip back and forth through time, hence the revue of Christmas standards performed by acrobats dressed in a blend of holiday kitsch and period pastiche.

While the desire to unite these disparate routines under a single narrative is understandable, the effort produces more problems than solutions. Darling’s glamorous, Old Hollywood affectation works best when she has a partner to play off—far and away the funniest bits of the evening came when she ragged on members of the audience—so to cast her alongside a largely mute group robs of her of the chance to banter and keep the story clipping along. The time-traveling motif, there to justify a trip back through holiday music, only makes each period pitstop, some of which are only as far back as 2013, more surreal and peculiar. It implies there’s a reason to have a hula hoop routine set to a country Christmas tune, a holly hop juggling homage, and a Dickensian sojourn that gives way to Darling reading a specialized adaptation of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas while the rest of the cast sit doe-eyed at her feet. Perhaps that’s why many of the performers seem stuck awkwardly lip-synching the words of each song and half-heartedly playing up their “character” to charm the audience. In the end, the story is both not enough to lend the revue consistency and too much to let this eclectic mix of treats just be what it is.

Audiences invariably have a feast of predictable Christmas entertainment to choose from this time of year: warm holiday concerts, movies running on a loop on TV, endless renditions of A Christmas Carol. A Magical Cirque Christmas deserves praise for bringing something different to the table, much of which is very good. How it sets that table leaves something to be desired.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

A Magical Cirque Christmas runs through December 18, 2022, at The National Theatre—1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($35–$130), call Ticketmaster at 1-800-982-2787 or purchase them online.

COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended but not required. Broadway at The National no longer requires vaccine verification to attend performances except when expressly stated. Broadway at The National’s full health and safety policy is here.