Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Corteo by Cirque du Soleil
National Tour
Review by Patrick Thomas

The Cast
Photo by Maja Prgomet/ Cirque du Soleil 2023
In one of Peggy Lee's biggest hits,"Is That All There Is?," one of the verses tells of her father taking her to a circus: "There were clowns and elephants, dancing bears/ And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads/ As I sat there watching/ I had the feeling that something was missing/ I don't know what/ When it was over I said to myself/ 'is that all there is to the circus?'"

Well, Miss Lee's father (or more likely Leiber and Stoller, who wrote the song) never saw a Cirque du Soleil show, for the Montreal-based company has, over nearly four decades, lived up to their initial vision to "reinvent the circus." What started as a small troupe of stilt walkers, jugglers, fire eaters, and musicians has become a global entertainment juggernaut, with multiple shows running in Las Vegas, Orlando, Mexico, Canada, Andorra–and nearly a dozen more currently on tour.

Corteo, which premiered in 2005 under a big top in Montreal, is currently in the Bay Area, playing three huge venues. Last weekend the show played San Jose's SAP Center. This weekend it hit the stage in the Oakland Coliseum Arena, and plays next weekend at San Francisco's Chase Center. As with the other Cirque shows I've had the pleasure to experience (including O, Mystére, Alegria, Nouvelle Expérience, Quidam, and Saltimbanco), Corteo is filled with magic, music, marvels and mayhem.

Thematically, Corteo exists in a sort of netherworld between heaven and Earth–a place where a clown goes after he dies to remember and celebrate all the joys of the circus–but without all that animal enslavement and cruelty that was a fixture of most circuses over the centuries. Corteo is at once romantic, operatic and neo-baroque. The stage is massive, with the audience placed on two sides. At its center is a huge turntable designed as a labyrinth–not a maze-like labyrinth that challenges one to find a way out, but a meditative labyrinth (almost identical to the one found on the floor of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral), one that invites you to trod its winding path to the center, shedding the cares of the day on the way in, reflecting on the present at its center, and slowly making ones way back into the world with a renewed sense of focus and calm.

That said, there is little that is calm about Corteo. Instead, it's almost non-stop thrills and astonishing feats of physical skill. You will see aerialists swinging on and hanging from giant chandeliers; a little person literally floating above you (suspended under giant helium balloons); gymnasts working high bars, spinning and flipping inches from each other, or in glorious unison; acrobats on a teeterboard that sends them flying skyward; and much, much more.

A live band provides a continuous soundtrack that calls to mind the music of Dead Can Dance or Jamiroquai. Corteo is also visually rich: though this is a one-ring circus, there are always multiple things going on, with something interesting or astounding to catch your eye. Director Daniele Finzi Pasca fills the frame with lovely details, like soaring angels or a spritz of glitter as an aerialist spins high above, or a sequence that gives new meaning to the concept of jumping on the bed.

Unfortunately, I found some of the clowning to be a bit tedious, especially a "Romeo and Juliet" sequence, but with all the wonders taking place on either side of that segment, I found it impossible not to love Corteo.

Corteo runs through August 27, 2023. Performances: August 19 at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and August 20 at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. at the Oakland Coliseum Arena; August 23-25 at 7:30 p.m., August 26 at 11:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and August 27 at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. at San Francisco's Chase Center. Tickets are $54-$149. For tickets and information, please visit