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CIRQUE INGENIEUX, UNDER THE BIG TOP AT SHEA'S

The "cirque" is coming to town, in a precedent-setting collaboration that should raise the national profiles of WNED-TV, Shea's Performing Arts Center and Buffalo itself.

The show is Cirque Ingenieux, a new American stage version of the European circus that combines illusion, artistry and amazing physical feats -- all set to New Age music.

Similar in format but unrelated to Canada's Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Ingenieux will figuratively pitch its tent at Shea's April 7 and 8. The performances will be taped for PBS television and possibly for future airing on Home Box Office or another premium cable network.

In truth, there is no tent. Nor animals, ringmasters nor costumed clowns of the kind associated with the American circus tradition.

Instead, the Shea's audience -- and ultimately, television viewers across the country -- will see a program replete with Cirque du Soleil-variety mystique, but in musical story form.

Like plays designed for the proscenium stage, it will have a beginning and an end, with plenty of dramatic highlights in between.

Briefly, the plot focuses on a young girl who, after watching a circus trapeze artist, dreams that she will one day perform similar feats. Like Alice in Wonderland, she is pulled into a dream world of aerial artists, jugglers, magicians and strongmen, bizarre creatures and a host of other characters.

The heroine, Sarah, has her ups and downs along the way, but the story naturally has a happy ending.

Scored by New Age composer Kitaro, the show is "an amalgam of the 'cirque' world and traditional theater," noted Ken Gentry, Cirque Ingenieux co-producer.

Will Buffalo residents who have never seen a "cirque" embrace such unfamiliar entertainment? WNED, Shea's and Cirque Ingenieux are betting the answer is yes.

"All of us are giving up something to make this happen," said Donald K. Boswell, new president of the Western New York Public Broadcasting Association, which operates WNED. Taping Cirque Ingenieux here for PBS was his idea.

"It's incredibly expensive to produce one of these things," added Patrick J. Fagan, Shea's president. It will be the second national television exposure for the Main Street showplace, if you count a program broadcast by the QVC home-shopping network last fall.

There was too little time to line up a national sponsor for the production -- Marine Midland Bank will be the local sponsor -- so costs will be shared by WNED, Shea's and Maryland-based Cirque Ingenieux.

The stage company began its first national tour last August in Dallas, where Boswell was then executive vice president of North Texas Public Broadcasting.

A gap in the Cirque itinerary, between stops in Wilmington, Del., and Grand Rapids, Mich., created an opening for the Shea's taping. (Cirque also will visit Toronto for three weeks beginning in late April).

Although the new partnership is putting up the production dollars, the potential revenues from PBS broadcasts or cable syndication make the investment seem solid.

There is a further up side: The chance to showcase Buffalo, and one of the nation's landmark theaters, while educating the public about a relatively unfamiliar entertainment form.

"We want to see this area involved in major productions," said Boswell. "This is a really great cultural and arts community, and it's too bad the word isn't getting out."

For Shea's, which is undertaking a $25 million restoration that will be partly funded by private contributions, the timing could not be better. The program will give the nation a close-up view of the ornate theater and the live audience a preview of seasons to come, Fagan said.

Cirque Ingenieux "is the kind of quality '90s entertainment that should be coming to Western New York," he said. Other large-format productions such as "Phantom of the Opera," "Defending the Caveman" and "The Lion King" will play Shea's in the future.

Finally, the taping "will provide great visibility for Cirque Ingenieux," Boswell said.

PBS exposure, Fagan added, could do for "Cirque" what it accomplished for "Riverdance," the Irish dance spectacular. After reaching American public television a year ago, the program spun off highly successful Broadway and touring productions.

Although Cirque Ingenieux has been on the road less than eight months and is still evolving, "it has done extraordinarily well," Gentry said.

"What appeals to us about the PBS taping is the chance to inform audiences who are unfamiliar with the cirque art form. We have found that once people see for themselves, the show does significantly better."

Whether Cirque is broadcast first on PBS or goes directly to cable depends on how the live taping goes. PBS executives will be at Shea's and "will want to see final tape," Boswell said.

Now it's up to Western New Yorkers to fill the seats, and respond to Cirque Ingenieux.

"This is the first production I'm bringing to this market," Boswell noted. "We need to show our best."

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