'Alegria' is vintage Cirque du Soleil

Not all cities are as lucky as us when it comes to Cirque du Soleil, which has brought lavish productions to Charlotte twice in the past five months.

First it was "Totem," a dazzling piece of entertainment that made its U.S. premiere under the Grand Chapiteau at Charlotte Motor Speedway in April. Now this week, "Alegría" - one of Cirque's most popular touring shows - is being performed for bigger audiences in a bigger venue: uptown's Time Warner Cable Arena.

But is the 17-year-old "Alegría" bigger fun?

If you missed "Totem" when it was here, you're lacking a frame of reference. If you've never seen a Cirque show live, any comparison is moot.

So I'll sum it up for both parties: "Totem" is slightly more compelling, but "Alegría" makes a solid introduction to Cirque du Soleil for anyone who's missed out on the last three times the Montreal-based company has brought a show to Charlotte.

Like all Cirque productions, "Alegría" (the Spanish word for "joy") boasts jaw-dropping stunts, broad cultural diversity (55 artists from 17 different countries in this case), and a central theme - this one highlights the struggle between the old establishment and the new generation. And like all Cirque shows, that theme is implemented vaguely. Audiences can choose to reflect on it ... or they can completely ignore it and just enjoy the ride.

Whereas "Totem" grabs you in the first minutes, "Alegría" warms up slowly, with lots of mild fanfare. Band members made up with long noses and shocks of white hair stroll in casually; the Ringmaster pulls audience members out of their chairs and dances with them.

It took more than 15 minutes before the crowd let out its first oohs and ahhs, when Australia's Zebastian Hunter performs a series of increasingly difficult stunts on a trapeze.

From there, the pace quickened through a first half jammed with eye-popping feats, including a back-to-back-to-back string of astounding routines that puts "Alegría" at risk of peaking too soon.

There's Fernando Dudka of Canada, balancing on his hands as his muscles ripple their way through implausibly designed splits and handstands. He's followed by Tahiti's Joseph Cadousteau, who spins flaming knives with such speed and intensity that the first few rows had to have been nervous about a slip-up. Then acrobat Tyler Block of California puts on a display of athleticism inside a Cyr wheel - essentially a large metal hoop - that is as mesmerizing as it is confounding.

Two amusing clowns (Canadians Jesse Buck and Aron De Casmaker) pop up frequently, scoring several more hits than misses and only occasionally overstaying their welcome. A third, lesser-used clown (Maxim Formitchev of Russia) closes Act One on an oddly downbeat note, as he loses his love amid a papier-mâché snowstorm.

The second act doesn't pack quite the same punch as the first, but Mongolian contortionists Ulziibuyan Mergen and Oyun-Erdene Senge are mind-bogglingly flexible, and the seven-man, done-without-wires aerial high bar routine makes a fitting final flourish.

Part of what gives "Totem" an edge is the setting; the Grand Chapiteau's smaller layout naturally puts you closer to the action and makes you feel more connected to the artists, even from the back of the house. (If you can afford it, spring for floor seats at "Alegría" and the experience will be similarly intimate.)

But make no mistake: "Alegría" is vintage Cirque, from the electrifying live-music score to the endlessly imaginative costumes to the smiles it will plaster onto the faces of the young, the old, and everyone in between.