How to enumerate the myriad wonders and delights of "Totem," now taking its viewers on a dazzling trek from the primordial to the cosmic?
For starters, there’s Cirque du Soleil’s signature yellow-and-blue Grand Chapiteau, rising from the Port of Los Angeles like a pasha's tent by Marc Chagall. Inside, designer Carl Fillion’s strategic, surprise-laden set sports a giant tortoise shell down center, putting our senses on immediate high alert.
Composers-musical directors Bob & Bill concoct a burst of pan flute and traditional drums, delivered by the redoubtable musicians hidden behind the marsh reeds upstage.
Étienne Boucher's extraordinary lighting and projections intensify, magma tones joining aquatic Vari-Lite hues, and the "shell" gives way to a skeletal carapace in which amphibious gymnasts in the first of costumer Kym Barrett's ingenious designs display awe-inspiring synchronized agility.
A glittering Crystal Man (David Resnick) descends from on high, producing halations as he sparks life in the swamp, and "Totem" is off and running, spinning, leaping and flying into our cerebral cortices.
This 28th entry from the matchless Quebec-based franchise (moving next month from San Pedro to Irvine) nominally concerns the evolution of mankind, with references that range from Charles Darwin and Native American spirit guides to Mayan iconography, Bollywood and surfer dudes.
Yet in the masterful hands of writer-director Robert Lepage, a mesmeric creative team doing its most astonishing work yet and 46 Olympic-worthy athletic artistes from around the world, "Totem" is really about transformation in totum, not to mention humanity's determination to achieve superhuman feats.
As when two Crystal Ladies juggle weighted squares of cloth with their feet, or the mercurial hoop maneuvers of Eric Hernandez as the Amerindian Dancer. This recurring figure, along with the Crystal Man, the trickster-like Tracker (Ante Ursic) and the Darwin-esque Scientist (Greg Kennedy), provides what narrative continuity "Totem" possesses, each character revealing his own nearly inexplicable legerdemain.
Comic relief comes from clowns Mikhail Usov and Pippo Crotti and a series of simian, Cro-Magnon and Aboriginal interlopers, with a passing reference to the origin of the species chart drawing chortles from the crowd.
Mating rituals receive their due. There’s a jaw-dropping still rings routine by two buff guys and a beach Amazon, a heart-stopping fixed trapeze courtship and a death-defying roller-skating pas de deux on a not-that-large tribal drum.
Each act closes with a breathtaking coup. A quintet of Chinese unicyclists tossing bowls from head to head precedes intermission with unearthly precision. And the final squadron of black-light-costumed cosmonauts doing layouts and somersaults on the Russian bars has us cheering and gasping at once.
Indeed, we're ready to join in when the cast attacks their "Omé Yo Kanoubé" curtain call with a joyous abandon that suggests the life force itself. This celebration of sheer human achievement and audience appreciation is simply thrilling. It's why we love Cirque du Soleil, and always will.
"Totem," 3011 Miner St., Berth 46, Port of Los Angeles, San Pedro, L.A. Ends Nov. 10. Reopens Nov. 21, Orange County Great Park Festival Site, Irvine. Schedule, directions & ticket info at www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.