The setting is a baroque opera house, carrying on from the posh theme of its host hotel, with a red velvet curtain and soaring ceiling. As the lights dim, an "audience member" (Philemon) is surprised twice over — first by a nymph-like woman who descends from the top of the dome and drops a red scarf to him, and second by someone beckoning to him from behind the curtain. Curious, he goes up to see what the stranger wants. Said stranger (Le Vieux) turns out to be the theater's guardian, and Philemon has just become the leading man in a unique adventure...
"O" is the phonetic pronounciation of the French word for water (eau); it also represents the number zero and infinity. This theater is one representing all theater, and based around water. What lies beyond that curtain is a gigantic pool. While it can (and does) switch to a conventional stage in seconds, depending on the needs of the moment, it is usually in its watery form. It is here that a colorful array of acrobatics unfold, from water ballet to high diving to fire spinning to the travails of two clowns on a shack adrift at sea. And in these acts unfold tales of love, disappointment, youth, death, joy, and strife on top of Philemon and Le Vieux's dual pursuit of the beautiful Aurora.
Wildly ambitious and extravagant, the show opened to glowing reviews and caused a sensation in Vegas, setting a high bar for subsequent theatrical spectacles worldwide (including Cirque's own) to clear.
Footage and characters from this show have appeared in the making-of documentary Flow (available in Region 1 via Cirque's gift shops and online boutique), the Widget Series Solstrom, and the 2012 3-D movie, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away. It was also filmed in its entirety for broadcast on the European cable network ARTE in 2017, but this has not received a home media release.
This show contains examples of:
- Audience Participation: Due to the show's unique staging, not much of it here — well, not much that's real, anyway. The man taken from the audience for the high dive is a plant; the two men who wind up dancing with the clowns are not.
- Busby Berkeley Number: The opening water ballet and the "Tzelma" transition are examples of the Esther Williams variant.
- Costume Porn: Especially impressive considering all the costumes are designed to hold up despite frequent exposure to, and often immersion in, water. The makeup was also specially formulated for these unique conditions, so it wouldn't run/wear off.
- Crusty Caretaker: Le Vieux; for more, see the next trope...
- Dark Is Not Evil: Le Vieux is a hunchbacked older man in whiteface; combined with his black and white suit and the creepy way he (literally) pulls Philemon into the story, he looks like an elegant Monster Clown. He is a grouchy fellow, but good at heart, with a hint of The Trickster about him. He becomes a Man In White and reunites Aurora with Philemon at the end.
- Dramatic Curtain Toss: The curtain isn't just raised as the show proper begins. Most of it is sucked up and away to reveal the stage space; the remainder resting on the "floor" is then gently pulled away to reveal the water.
- Einstein Hair: Le Vieux.
- The Everyman: Philemon.
- Everything's Better with Spinning: The fire and aerial hoops acts. The latter is the show's climax.
- Fire/Water Juxtaposition: The stage mostly "dries up" for the fire act. According to the official website, the act depicts "the rage of fire and the purification of water". Originally, the entire show was going to be based around this trope by giving equal time to water and fire-based acts.
- For Doom the Bell Tolls: As the Russian swings act nears its finish, the bell on the middle swing begins to toll as an acrobat spins the swing up and over the bar — and a funeral procession, complete with a wagon with a coffin upon it, crosses the stage in the background. However, the music and foreground action remains cheerful, and the coffin pops open to reveal a minor female character who cheerfully waves to the audience as the mourners trailing the wagon dance offstage.
- From Beyond the Fourth Wall: Philemon begins the story as a member of the audience, as does one of the high divers.
- Gentle Giant: The Barrel Organ Grinder.
- Gorgeous Garment Generation: Philemon is first seen in a plain T-shirt, pants, and ball cap; once he's fully pulled into the theater's world, he wears the clothes of an adventurer from an Arabian Nights tale. (One alternate name for the character, seen on a souvenir ornament, is "Sinbad".)
- Groin Attack: One clown instructs the other to hit him over the head with a sledgehammer, which will knock him out and let him get some sleep. Guess where he gets hit on the first try?
- Homage: In the first sequence with the clowns on the drifting shack, Le Vieux appears in the background and "conducts" the water. "Waterspouts" rise into the air as a Suspiciously Similar Song to "Night on Bald Mountain" is performed; this coincides with the shack springing a terrible leak the clowns desperately try to stopper. This is likely an affectionate reference to two segments of Fantasia — "Night on Bald Mountain" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice".
- Hope Sprouts Eternal: Played for gentle humor — as the clowns huddle together after the above-mentioned "storm", flowers start sprouting out of the roof of their shack as it drifts away.
- Incendiary Exponent: The fire act.
- The Ingenue: Aurora.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: The official website listed nine significant characters/character groups at one point. Among the characters who were not listed were the Bride (female lead singer), a wedding party, the "Flayed Ones" who perform the "bateau" act (aerial cradle/parallel bars), and the clowns. And then there's all the bit parts for background business or colorful processions.
- Long-Runners: 20+ years.
- MacGuffin: The red scarf, which Philemon has a hard time keeping his.
- Magical Land: The theatre.
- Man in White: Le Vieux, at the end.
- Man on Fire: Named L'Allume, he slowly becomes this as he reads a newspaper.
- Melancholy Moon: The backdrop for the clowns on the shack includes a projected moon which qualifies as this when they huddle together, having endured the waterspouts and the leak, at the end of their first segment. (As the shack drifts off, a cow jumps over that moon.)
- Mood Whiplash: The transition to Russian swings suddenly goes from joyful to mournful, then back to joyful as the act itself starts.
- No Fourth Wall: As the above tropes show.
- Opening Water Ballet: No better way to show off a pool-stage than this, really.
- Rewritten Pop Version / Rearrange the Song
- The song from the solo trapeze/trapeze Washington act — which does not appear on the soundtrack album — appeared over the end credits of the Journey of Man short film; on its soundtrack album, a pop version with new English-language lyrics made an appearance along with the original take.
- In the Delirium concert tour, "Nostalgie" became "Bridge of Sorrow", "Africa" became "Bour Mowote", and "Mer Noire" became "Time Flies".
- Scenery Porn: Inherent in the concept of a giant pool for a stage.
- Set Switch Song: "Africa" and "Nostalgie".
- Singing Simlish / Speaking Simlish: As was Cirque's standard practice at this point.
- Slapstick: The clown's effort to get himself to fall asleep...with the aid of a sledgehammer.
- Spiritual Successor: Director/writer Franco Dragone has since mounted two non-Cirque shows with water "stages" — Le Reve (2005) in Las Vegas and The House of Dancing Water (2010) in Macau, China.
- Transvestite: Le Travesti, a dancer whose solo in the spotlight leads into the fire act.
- Trapped in Another World: Philemon. The finale has him returned to this world, but then he's pulled back to the other at the end of the curtain call.
- Walking Shirtless Scene: The Masked Thief and his fellow fire spinners, several of the high divers, the Barrel Organ Grinder, and Le Travesti.
- When It Rains, It Pours: About halfway through the cadre act, a heavy rain begins to fall, making the act that much more challenging for the performers.