Specialty acts often put the focus on Olympics-grade gymnastics, although twisted here with unexpected moves and DayGlo-colorful costuming. A trapeze-dangling and mutually grappling girl and guy (Guilhem Cauchois, Sarah Tessier), as much contortionists as acrobats, prove especially sensational and more than a little sexy, although the kids won't pick up on the latter.
The musical score and lighting seem brighter, too - more summery and accessible than memory serves from past Cirque encounters we had in the Big Chapiteau at Broad Street and Washington Avenue. For "Totem" - pronounced Toe-TEM - the Cirque team trekked across the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden and a new riverfront site near the aquarium and Susquehanna Bank Center.
Given all that broad appeal, this opening-night-show cheerer returned last weekend for a matinee, bringing my 3-year-old granddaughter, Leah, to test my "family-friendliest Cirque" theory, along with Leah's mom, Hilary, another longtime Cirque fan and a former Daily News kids-show critic, and dad, Stu.
Leah had been to two "Sesame Street" extravaganzas at the Liacouras Center, so this was not her first live show. The wee one was wide-eyed and giggling just spotting the blue-and-white tent city and clownish greeters - one looming very tall on stilts. And she certainly liked the snacks available in the lobby area of the air-conditioned tent.
Cirque sells traditional circus fare - pricey soft pretzels and hot dogs (gotta bring your own utensil, parents, to cut them up), ice cream and popcorn.
The Cirque PR team had another extra-special treat (they thought) for our pint-size reviewer - seating her dead center in the very first row.
Bad idea, it turned out.
Extremely loud - and a little too close
Leah loved the silver spangly human disco ball dropping out of the darkness and the high fliers soaring overhead. But the big mess of super-action-figure-garbed acrobats redefining "cage match" scared the bejabbers out of her at close range - and the loud music didn't help. Heck, there were moments when I was chewing my knuckles from that vantage point. Too much information!
Leah and her mom retreated to the back of the tent, where an understanding usher pointed them to an elevated platform where they could sit and watch.
Leah would demand the same hasty retreat shortly after the opening of the second act. Truth is, I'd recommend seat locations in the middle to the back of Cirque's smallish, bowled theater for almost everyone but the myopic and hard of hearing.
From a distance, it's easier to appreciate the choreographed ensemble pieces such as the amazing Russian acrobats bouncing fearlessly into the air off wooden boards flexed by their troupe mates, or the fancifully attired (aren't all Cirquesters?) Asian female unicyclists tossing and catching bowls with their heads.
The latter was definitely one of Leah's favorite bits. She also took a liking to the foot- and hand-spinning Tsodikova sisters (a/k/a "Crystal Ladies").
Leah also locked hypnotically onto the swirl of glowing balls spinning inside a giant glass funnel through the "manipulations" of Greg Kennedy, a magic man from the exotic wilds of Philadelphia.
After the show, I chatted with other kids and parents who underscored the family-friendly nature of this new Cirque show even better than Leah had.
A 2 1/2-year-old named Alissa likewise loved the jugglers and the clownabouts - an egotistic Italian buffoon (Pippo Crotti) and a Harpo Marx-like mimester (Mikhail Usov) with a great fishing bit, more concise than the usual Cirque comedy routines drawn out for stage resetting purposes. This stall tactic was unnecessary in writer/director Robert Lepage's seamlessly flowing "Totem."
I also got a "thumbs-up" from 5-year-old Lucas, who only got antsy and demanded an early exit 15 minutes before the big Bollywood-styled dance finale. "The show is two hours long, plus the intermission," sighed his mom. "That's a lot of attention to ask from a little one. He did very well."
Cirque du Soleil "Totem" plays through June 30 on the waterfront in Camden. Shows 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; family-oriented matinees 4 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday. Family four-packs (including at least one adult and one children's ticket) start at $208, 800-450-1480, cirquedusoleil.com.