Curtain for “Saltimbanco” at Agganis Arena Wednesday was 8 p.m. At 7:50, performers began to troop onto the oval stage and then spill into the audience. A number of spectators sitting in the front row on the arena floor were enticed out of their seats and escorted toward the stage — where the performers abandoned them and made a dash for their seats, only to be rousted by the ringmaster. Welcome to the world of Cirque du Soleil, where the performance is ongoing and the audience is always part of the action.
Cirque du Soleil’s longest-running touring show, “Saltimbanco” is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and also making its farewell tour, after which it is to be retired. It first played Boston in 1993, at Fan Pier, under Cirque’s Grand Chapiteau. Now it has returned as an arena show with a rock band. Although the audience isn’t physically encircled by the action the way it was in the big top, the performers’ irrepressible physical energy still makes it seem that all the world is their stage.
The concept behind “Saltimbanco” is that it’s a celebration of our urban experience. The 23-foot-tall Chinese poles represent city skyscrapers, and there’s a vertical aspect to many of the acrobatics, from the trapeze and the aerial straps to the Russian swing and the bungee jumping. Some acts also make reference to humble urban pastimes like jump rope and stickball. But there’s nothing gray or gritty about the performers’ costumes, which are a riot of color. Even the stage floor is patterned to look like a kaleidoscopic butterfly.
The show has a cast of characters as well as acrobats. There’s a Baron (Gérard Théorêt) in a black-and-white-striped cape, long red gloves, and a top hat. He’s in charge. There’s a Ringmaster (RJ Owens) in a yellow jumpsuit and green vest and cape, who would like to be in charge. There’s a Dreamer (Daniel Buckland) in a striped blue suit with a long curly tail, who keeps lying down on the floor and trying to take a nap; eventually he’ll do a parody acrobatic routine with the Ringmaster. There are “vers multicolores” (“multicolored worms”) and “vers masquées” (“masked worms”) and a bunch of tough-looking Baroques.
But the only character who makes a real impression is the clown Eddie (Martin Pons), who gets a solo spot in each half of the 2½-hour show. Sporting a white shirt, a black bow tie, baggy shorts, suspenders, and a red baseball cap, Eddie vocalizes an amazing array of sound effects to punctuate opening invisible doors and throwing an invisible ball to audience members. In his second spot Wednesday, he drew a man from the audience up onstage to eat an invisible banana, slip on an invisible banana peel, and engage in a gunslingers’ shootout.
The acrobatics are, as always with Cirque du Soleil, eye-popping. Sarah “Haven” Heffner does a kind of love duet high up with her trapeze. Terry Velasquez keeps as many as eight balls in the air, but his specialty is juggling them off the floor at dizzying speed. One of the Russian-swing performers flies almost out of sight before landing on top of a human totem pole. Adriana Pegueroles and Luis Lopez make a flamenco dance out of their boleadoras number.
The final bungee segment, with four performers rising and swooping in turn, becomes an aerial ballet. “Saltimbanco” itself is a dance of urban life, a paean to our coming together.