Review: Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Twas the Night Before World Premiere Blends Classic and Modern

Nicole Faubert and Guillaume Paquin on straps. All photos by Errisson Lawrence.

On opening night of ‘Twas the Night Before by Cirque du Soleil last Friday, Macy’s windows on State Street were decorated with polar creatures enjoying some real winter hygge. People clutching little red stocking-shaped mugs of glog had wandered over from Daley Plaza’s Christkindlmarket, and the line for the world premiere of this holiday-themed circus show wrapped around to the alley.

Once inside the cavernous Chicago Theatre, the hygge continued, with hip-hop elves and a minimal, monochrome but chic Santa taking to the stage. Cirque du Soleil was poking fun at its own aesthetic, layering its vogue sensibilities over the classic children’s poem (1823) by Clement Clarke Moore for their modern rendition. But of course, those trappings of Santa and the elves are just the glue that holds the show together, and the show itself is the same stellar level of acrobatics and aerials we’ve come to expect from Cirque du Soleil. Although the overall effect of the contrast of old to modern in ‘Twas the Night Before was a bit incongruous, like having a robot to a tea party, the truth is that this incongruity perfectly embodies our moment in history, a place suspended between live performance and high tech dependence, family comforts, and digital distractions. In this way, Cirque du Soleil, in their rendition of a timeless classic tale, attempted to take on the paradox both in theme and in style.

Santa (Francis Gadbois) and Isabella (Michelle Clark).

Cirque du Soleil is entering a holiday show market that is highly competitive. In Chicago this season there is A Christmas Carol at Goodman Theatre, Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, and Joffrey’s The Nutcracker, just to name a few. So booking the biggest theater and having the most glitter and pomp is surely part of the recipe for success. No surprise then that opening night of this world premiere was sold out to a house thirsty for some holiday cheer after weeks of drizzle and cold. So, when the electronic score started and hip-hop dancing elves in white puff jackets emerged in the audience to introduce the heroine Isabella (Michelle Clark) and her father (Alexis Vigneault), the crowd sighed with relief. It was going to be family fun, with a modern twist.

As bits of the poem emerge, various circus acts reveal themselves, and Isabella walks through the dreamscape a bit like Scrooge, reluctantly at first, but gobsmacked in the end, until she too has been enveloped by the spirit of Christmas, which we soon discover because of her riveting solo on hula hoops.

The hoop-diving reindeer.

In this loosely based homage, what stands out is the talent. The dancers (Jenna Beltrane, Kalila Hermant, Samuel Moore, Paul Ross, Diana Schoenfield and Bianca Vallor) tie the acts together by embodying snow and mischief and the spirit of giving at various points, and by delivering the popping and locking dance sequences to a rave-like rhythm.

Other notable moments were the opening duo by Nicole Faubert and Guillaume Paquin on straps (they competed at the 40th Cirque De Demain Festival in 2019). Their poetic act as snowflakes set the scene for the world-class talents that would follow.

Santa himself appeared, stripped of his red attire, to juggle blocks disguised as books. As Santa, Francis Gadbois’ versatile skillset and shapeshifting abilities were the most amusing part of the show, especially the clown scene between him and an audience volunteer.

Katharine Arnold (The 7 Fingers) did a unique aerial number on a hotel cart, as Alexis Vigneault (also a competitor at Cirque de Demain and with previous performing credits from Cirque Eloize, Cirque du Soleil and The 7 Fingers) did the same on aerial lamp, two devices it seems only the artists themselves have explored. In the more familiar discipline of rollerblades, Rosie Axon and Adam Jukes, British duo acrobat / ice and roller skate world inline pair champion, demonstrated the kind of technique one expects to see at champion ice skating events. On aerial tissue Tuedon Ariri (Cirque Eloize) performed a graceful solo act, followed by the diabolo ensemble (Ming-En Chen, Tsung-Ying Lin, Ting-Chung Wang, Chia-Hao Yu) whose glowing and high tech style matched the energy of their act and the show aesthetic.

The high energy acrobatic table sliding act.

Children nestled in their beds with sugar plums dancing through their heads (Quentin Greco, Jacob Gregoire, Chauncey Kroner, Timothé Vincent, Jinge Wange and Evan Tomlinson Weintraub) turned out to be acrobats who were too keyed up to sleep on Christmas eve, which led to an exciting table sliding scene with the talented crew. This same group of acrobats also wrapped things up with the show’s finale, a high-energy acrobatic hoop diving number delivered as reindeer, who are off to fetch the suddenly authentic-looking Santa.

This show will appeal across the generations of the family, and would be a nice introduction for grandparents and grandkids alike to the Cirque Du Soleil style and aesthetic.

‘Twas the Night Before will be playing through December 8 at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St. (tickets from $50 to $656) before heading off to Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York (December 12-29.)

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Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.