"CORTEO," the new touring Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, is less about abstract weirdness than it is about paying homage to classic circus entertainment — not the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey variety but the Old World European clown variety.

At this point, we're used to blazing spectacle from the Canadian Cirque empire, and "Corteo" delivers on that score. But this is grand circus on a more human scale, and that's what sets "Corteo" apart from its Cirque brethren.

The show's creator and director, Daniele Finzi Pasca, specializes in circus with a heart. His troupe, Cirque Eloize, has charmed East Bay audiences for years, and earlier this fall, Eloize's "Rain" poured on the charm as a last-minute replacement in the Best of Broadway schedule.

Now Finzi Pasca has all the riches and resources of Cirque du Soleil at his disposal, and his choice was to create a rustic tale of a clown (Mauro Mozzani) dreaming about his own funeral. Whether the clown is really dead or not, we never know. Obscurity is, after all, a Cirque du Soleil specialty.

But the concept allows for a combination of wake, heaven and dream imagery complete with a funeral cortege marching band, angels galore and Fellini-esque visions of the afterlife.

Under its signature blue-and-yellow-striped tent behind San Francisco's SBC Park, "Corteo" opened last weekend and continues through the end of the year before moving to San Jose.

If the technical dazzle and sheer beauty of the show's first few scenes extended throughout its 21/2-hour duration, this would be one of the best Cirque shows of all.

As it is, "Corteo" starts strong in

both form and content, then becomes more conventional as it proceeds. There's a surprising stumble in Act 2 with a limp clown act called "Teatro Intimo" that lands with a crashing thud. Thankfully, the show recovers but not without losing some of its dreamy quality.

The first two acts are great because they are so distinctly human. After a marvelous opening procession across Jean Rabasse's stage, which bisects the tent and has a big, revolving center platform, acrobats begin a trapeze routine. But instead of using trapezes, they swing and twirl on crystal chandeliers.

That act gracefully segues into one involving trampolines, but the trampolines are cannily disguised as beds. Anyone who, as a child (or an adult for that matter), defied parents and jumped on beds will delight in this playfully robust act.

This link to the everyday world fades with the next act as four intrepid performers become the spokes in giant Cyr wheels. With one person inside each metallic wheel, the act spins out with astonishing speed and grace.

Among the other mind-blowing acts are the incredible juggling of the Teslenko family, the gravity-defying teeterboard leaps and jumps of Stephane Beauregard, Jeremie Robert and Peter Stoyanov and the ladder manipulation of Uzeyer Novrusov.

Aside from the disastrous clowning in Act 2, there are some enjoyable clown acts including one with four frisky people in two old-fashioned horse costumes and Rebecca Jose's disarming turn as a marionette.

The most enchanting clown act involves head clown Mozzani and little person Valentyna Pahlevanyan. Petite and lovely, Pahlevanyan is attached to a spinning harness dangling from four giant pink helium-filled balloons. Mozzani tosses the little lady around, and she glides gracefully through the air. When her trajectory takes her over the audience, Mozzani says, "OK to touch!" and Pahlevanyan bounces around the audience like a beach ball at a rock concert.

Though the show-ending parallel-bar act is good, the best demonstration of physical strength and prowess comes at the top of Act 2 as a trapeze act unfolds without trapezes. Instead, women are hurled through the air with the greatest of ease by musclemen harnessed to posts.

It's an amazingly athletic routine made more astonishing when you realize it's just people trusting other people to catch them before they fall. 

Part of the fun of a Cirque show is all the spectacle surrounding the acts, and in "Corteo," those extras include an upside-down tightrope walk, dozens of pairs of shoes walking across the stage by themselves and a clown ascending to heaven on his bicycle.

Dominique Lemieux's costumes have a subdued, lived-in charm that adds to the slightly tarnished beauty of the show. The music should have a similar quality, but in actuality, Philippe Leduc and Maria Bonzanigo's score is typically new age-y and pleasant rather than memorable.

With the chandeliers and beds, "Corteo" taps into something wonderful and magical, so it's ultimately disappointing that the show settles for being very good when it was so clearly on its way to being great.

You can e-mail Chad Jones at cjones@angnewspapers.com or call (925) 416-4853.