Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Exit the Elephants: In The Court of Public Opinion, A New Day for The Greatest Show on Earth?

Update, 3/24/15: Comments are coming in. Add your voice, if you wish.
Not since the fall of the last Ringling-Barnum big top, in 1956, has the Greatest Show on Earth undergone so great a redefinition of itself.

Once upon a season, Americans counted the stature of a circus by the number of elephants it carried.  And once upon a merrier season, John Ringling North staged an elephant ballet scored by Igor Stravinsky, “choreographed” by George Balanchine.  Another year, he hosted a fashion show atop the pachyderms.

Now the elephants are to exit.  Several years ago, big top boss Kenneth Feld, faced with growing pressure to cease presenting animal acts for which there was mounting evidence of abuse by his presenters, told the media that when the public stopped coming to his shows — then, he would pay attention and act.

Los Angeles takes a stand

Well, in the court of public opinion, that day has come. In the words of Alana Feld, cutting clean to the chase:  "There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers.  A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."

You can blast PETA and its affiliate groups for shameless misrepresentations, but you can’t blast the American public for being turned off by YouTube evidence filmed backstage at Ringling, of apparent callous (if not actually cruel) mistreatment  of a group of elephants being readied to go on.  Here is where Kenneth Feld made his worst strategic blunder.  He claimed the YouTube, posted in 2008, had been misleadingly edited, but then never made good on the claim.  Animal-rights protestors (many of them, understandably bothered by such evidence) still push the video in hand-out leaflets, while standing outside arenas when the circus comes to town.

Kenneth Feld and his lawyers were able to prove liable against the circus by various  animal-rights groups.  But, in the end, they could not explain away the “misleadingly edited” YouTube. And so, for that reason and others, the court of public opinion finally caught up with them.  It caught up with them in Entertainment Central, in this unfaltering instance, not unnoticed by major media, the Los Angeles City Council voting last year to ban the use of elephant bull hooks.  An inconvenient year later, the same thinking spread north to the City of Oakland.  California was fast closing its arena doors to the Greatest Show on Earth.

Feld's fatal testimony

As much as Feld may be a lover of the elephant preservation compound he fosters — or of its imagery to counteract all that noise out there against him, behind the scenes, his elephants handlers, at least on occasion, do not conform to what the public has come to expect.

I actually believed — or wanted to believe — that the man had a genuine love for the elephants.  I also came to believe that he is well aware of things that go on behind his back but has kept free of those things — to the dangerous point of not wishing to be regularly apprised by his staff  —  in order not to have to testify against himself or his operation.  Indeed, this practice leaked out in his testimony before a judge when Feld admitted to not always been informed of such actions.  How blatantly it contradicted the man’s alleged high concern for animal abuse in his own house. In that one stunning revelation, I lost faith in the man’s sincerity.

And what about the other shows?

Ringling Bros. is still the Big One.  The Big Show. And it is filthy rich -- a well-earned testament to  its skill in production and marketing. .  The Feld family is apparently loaded with producing talent to last for future generations.  Theirs is the circus that draws most of the major media attention, and so the question: Will other smaller big tops be forced by pressure or declining patronage in their own markets to follow suit?   They may be able, each, to make a case for themselves and their animal trainers, but to do this, they will have to separate themselves from those nasty videos that will not go away -- from the Ringling YouTube and, even more so, from the more lethally damming strip of film, secretly made years before, of Tim Frisco going nuts in a Carson and Barnes Circus barn, viciously breaking in a group of pachyderms.  

These things can not be talked away.    Sadly, they will hurt the efforts of all trainers, no matter how ethical they may be, to continue training and presenting wild animals.    Perhaps the saddest part of this tale is how our nation’s most famous and long-lasting circus turned out itself to be have been a prime contributor to the anti-animal cause.

The ever changing, never changing circus has a way

They said Barnum was done when Jumbo died (a line from the film, The Greatest Show on Earth).  They said the tented circus was done when John Ringling North, in 1956, declared it “a thing of the past.” But his dire pronouncement clarified,  “as it then exists.” North alluded to the colossal costs incurred in operating a three-train railroad show, a mammoth enterprise increasingly difficult to fund and move from city to city, where nearby parking lots were growing scarcer.   

A new day for the Greatest Show on Earth?

There can be little doubt that the animal rights movements ultimately drove down attendance at Ringling dates.  Where once they played to ten thousand on good nights, now the number was closer to half that (my best guess).

Now, Ringling-Barnum stands to benefit the most from Feld’s decision.  Indeed, it may be facing a glorious new era of rebounding parsonage , as parents adverse to elephant acts flock once again to the circus, their children happily in toe.  Horses and dogs?  A pig through a barrel?  A monkey peddling a bike?   The public will have no problem at all embracing these types of acts.  For years Big Apple Circus has done well enough featuring horses and dogs. 

Droves of families who have stayed a way will no doubt return, wanting to enjoy a circus that still knows how to find the best acts in the world, and how to shape and merge them into dazzling spectacle long associated with the glory days of the three ring American circus, albeit without those three rings. 

The story is not over  

Kenneth Feld's best move would be to sign the UK’s Thomas Chipperfield, who has become something of a poster boy for how tigers and lions can be humanely trained, what with his home made videos showing him at work with his charges.  Especially at this sensitive moment in Ringling history, Chipperfield would be a great asset to the new Greatest Show on Earth,  Don’t count out the millions of parents, even of the liberal class, who want their children to witness uplifting interactions between man and beast.

In the beginning, In London Town, there were horses.  There were no elephants.  Perhaps that is where we are headed for, back to the beginning.

So say goodbye — for a while — to the elephants on parade!   And pray they may one day return.   In the court of public opinion, inevitably, a good case made for a good act kindly trained and cared for will have its day.  The court is never fully adjourned.

Photos, from the top down:

Ringling Bros. finale at Madison Square Garden, Circa 1954
Kenneth Feld and his three producing daughters
Richard and Edith Barstow, Ringling directors, with a baby elephant ready for its carriage ride in  the  1955 production number, featuring 55 pachyderms, Mama's in the Park -
Baby Opal, Polack Bros. Circus, 1955
Elephant pyramid at the recent Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, Monaco


Thursday, March 19, 2015

From a Bang to a Whimper: New Book, The Greatest Shows on Earth, Celebrates Some, Snubs Others

Book Review
The Greatest Shows on Earth:  A History of the Circus
Linda Simon
Reaktion Books

There is a great feeling of excitement stepping into the opening pages of Linda Simon’s promising new book, The Greatest Shows on Earth.  Jumping quickly into the ring, she grabs hold of what circus is all about:

“It started like this: Someone captivated attention by doing what others could not do.”

Her tour takes us back by more than a thousand years to find evidence of performing bears, jugglers and the like, and then moves forward, to find them all (eventually) joined gloriously together in one showmanly stroke of good fortune by English horse rider Phillip Astley, in effect creating the first “circus” show in London.  The year was 1770

Astley, something of an early day Guy Laliberte, would go on to operate 19 circus amphitheaters in France and England .  One of his disciples, Bill Rickets, would bring Astley’s form of circus to America.

And from there, the Americans, thanks to a little help from ballyhoo master P.T. Barnum, would grow a one-ring show into spectacular proportions, taking three rings and two platforms to  London’s Olympia in 1899, for a three month winter run.  The reception was so great,  they added seven thousand seats to the five thousand already in place

 “The American style circus “ writes our tour guide, “took London by storm.  After the opening, it was impossible to get tickets ...  Unless you ordered them for weeks ahead."

So lifted were my spirits by how Simon followed these and other watershed moments, that I  expected a major literary achievement ahead,  both entertaining, informative, and complete.

Complete, sad to report, “A History of the Circus” is  far from.  Incredibly far from  The big picture Simon so skillfully composes in her early chapters eventually dwindles down to a minuscule portrait of today’s niche shows.  Hard to believe how she could have overlooked the entire Soviet-to-Russian circus empire, which remains a major player out there in the real world.  From Russia’s creative roots, Cirque du Soleil would, years later, rise, to become a global phenomenon.   Even Cirque gets short shirt in this curiously under-researched tome.  Charged with favoring "spectacle" over true "artistry" — a tired knee-jerk put down by envious rivals, previously labeled against Ringling-Barnum — Cirque clearly deserved much more from the author.

Another legendary 20th century impresario, John Ringling North, barely escapes being ignored as well.   Were it not for his famous elephant ballet, he might have been.  The felds — remember them? — do not make the final cut.  Not even a cameo!  For an academic writer embarking on a project so sweeping in its heralded scope, not to spotlight the Russians (nor, for that matter, the Chinese) is simply inconceivable — tantamount to a book on world cinema leaving out Hitchcock or Fellini.  Perhaps on library shelves, where Simon appears to have spent most of her time, she failed to come across anything about the Russians, other than their Moscow Circus School, which she mentions only in passing.

As well as containing minor errors (dates, etc. ), more troubling still are some rather novel assertions, a couple of which:

During the five-year period while Barnum & Bailey was touring Europe (1897-1902),  “the Ringlings made their biggest advances, performing in arenas rather than under tents” Oh?

“Gunther Gebel Williams did not use a whip, chair, or pistol”  Not a whip?  I don’t recall ever seeing him without one, nor do the photos I have.

And there are missing icons, such as arguably the greatest juggler of our era, Anthony Gatto, and surely the greatest flyer of all time, Miguel Vazquez.  All of which made me wonder what else is wrong or misleading.

The rarely plodding Simon is a most engaging writer — there is plenty here to enjoy and savor. She draws from many great writers and artists who have found inspiration around the sawdust rings.  She  explores clowns and animals, among the usual topics, with a fine gift for nuance and balance.  And you will not feel being lectured to by an edgy feminist.   She is good at evoking the erotic undertones of early circus shows, and of how the circus, then about the only game in town, held such sway over the public. She gives voice to the reactions of people from long ago, of how the circus coming to town thrilled them.  She reveals a particular fondness for freaks, giving the side show perhaps more time than it merits in a long penultimate chapter bordering on the gratuitous, just before the big parade peters out into alternative circus land, exemplified in the photo below. 

Thus does the book fall woefully short of a greater mark that its author clearly has the talent to have reached:  Instead of the story advancing onto the great victories of the Russians, of Cirque du Soleil and of today’s still-powerful Ringling shows, not to mention world circus festivals -- instead of that,  Simon ends up, of all places, in Berkeley California.  There, she talks to Shana Carroll, in her youth a performer with the long-gone Pickle Family Circus, then co-founder of Seven Fingers, one of the more successful of many fringe groups struggling to find and hold an audience, and to others of a like minded advocacy.  The short list of interviews is small, narrow, limiting.   As to their claim that those larger and glitzier shows are all about "spectacle" — heck, when I want to see the best acts on the planet, I go looking for and expecting to find them at Ringling or Big Apple, or under a Cirque du Soleil tent.  Even under a smaller U.S. top.

I was left to wonder if Simon has ever actually seen a Cirque show – indeed, any circus?

The book is ideally designed to give both text and the handsome photographs ample space, the reader, a very good view of it all.  What is there, make no doubt, kids, is well worth recommending.

All photos from The Greatest Shows on Earth, published by Reaktion Books, starting from above:
Astley's Amphitheater,  1808-11
Banner act, 1875
James Tissot, Women of the Circus 1883-85
Lolo''s Flight Through the Balloons, c. 1870s
The Circus Girl, 1897
A Zingaro show, 2012
Early cannon act, 1887
Forepaugh & Sells poster, 1899
Lillian Leitzel and clown, date unknown

Kept Afloat by Big Top Tricks, 7 Fingers Dabbles Densely in Many Arts -- Patience Here is an Artful Asset

Theatre Review
7 Fingers - Sequence 8
Berkeley, Ca, Feb. 7, 2015

Loaded with many things to do and to prove, from circus acts and dance, to pantomime, chat, satire, hauntingly downbeat stage pictures linked to abstract body movement, and even more —  the Montreal-based and very French Les 7 doigts de la main  delves even deeper into its preoccupation with the human condition. They call this one Sequence 8.   As the company did with one of its first outings,  the easier-to-take Traces, Sequence 8 opens the souls of its performers onto the audience by having them talk to us and to each other.  Sometimes in secretive whispers.  In the shadows.  Our job is to ponder.

Call this eclectic opus a metaphysical variety show.  It is, no, not a circus, even though it, yes, wins us over by essentially being a circus, earning its encores with a few outstanding acts, themselves certainly good enough for a shot at Monte Carlo medals.  They are, nonetheless, deadly determined to reach the theatre crowd.  While Isadora Duncan might approve, not sure that Will Shakespeare would.  They are all about being clever and hip, so hip during the dullest moments as to be as dumbfounding as an art installation in a modern art museum.  This apparently thrills to no end those on the intellectual fringe seeking both a release from and an excuse for patronizing a circus.

They take the stage, as they did with Traces, merging dance and acrobatics into brilliantly complex patterns, this early astonishing assault flowing into one of two most memorable offerings —  Alexandra Royer in a pole vaulting routine that tops anything in this genre that I have ever seen.   At this early point, I thought to myself (prematurely judging as often I try not to do), if only Cirque du Soleil could be like that.

They had barely just begun, keep in mind, and what lay ahead was as tediously pretentious as it was, at redemptive intervals, exhilarating.  The other star act has two fellows — Ugo Dario and Maxim Laurin —  ambling about on a teeterboard, accelerating their amble into a thrilling exhibition of somersaulting thrusts upward, one after the other.  Another Monte Carlo moment, I’d say.   And there is a third turn that captures major attention in the form of juggler Eric Bates manipulating square blocks.  Company ingeniously contributes to his number.

In-between the strongest action drawn from big top dynamics, all of the other stuff, joined without a clear narrative or rhythmic pulse, may try your patience. And instead of an intermission, we are talked to by one of the artists, endeavoring to charm spectators in a yet more intimate manner.   Nouveau audience participation.  Another trying diversion consists of  four people planted downstage facing the audience, each pretending to be standing in front of a mirror while removing their clothes.  Very slow.  What is the point of it – quasi strip tease?   By now, I was wishing, if only 7 Fingers could be more like Cirque du Soleil.

On my way out, facing my honest emotions, I did not feel the same joy that I felt leaving the CDS tent following Kurios.  Or leaving Ringling following Built to Amaze.  I felt a strange sad  existential gloom, and I was surprised, looking at my pre-Apple wrist watch, to see that I had not been in there for over two hours, as it had seemed, but for only 95 minutes.
Which makes it not just easier, but more logical to state that this is not a circus.  Indeed, it never really wanted to be one, and never called itself a circus, even though, according to program notes, it's "initial goal was to bring circus to a human scale."  No wonder I feel rather irrelevant writing this review.   

7 Fingers, its theatre-heavy roots in the last and thematically darkest days of San Francisco's New Pickle Circus (Circumstance, Birdhouse Factory), extends a drive, once briefly championed in the Soviet Union during post-revolutionary days, to merge theatre and circus.   Sequence 8 will undoubtedly impress those who long for circus – without circus.  For myself, if I want Becket or Brecht, Pinter or Genet or Gorky, I’ll go see a real play in a real playhouse.

Rating (it’s the show, stupid): 2 stars


Thursday, March 05, 2015

MIDWAY FLASH ... MIDWAY FLASH ... Goodbye, Ringling Elephants ... Circus to Retire Pachyderms in 2018

This just in from CBS.  Circus spokesman Stephen Payne telling CBS news that the Feld Family has decided to end the elephant acts.

Payne revealed that the decision has been in the making for some time.

Growing public pressure was cited as a primary reason.

Said Alana Feld to AP: "There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers. A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday Slide Bys: Don’t Slip Over a Peanut, Inside May be a Fortune too Good to Smash

Dum De Dum Dum... First Draft Reckless ... 

LET'S SEE, WHAT'S HERE, or out there, or say, simmering on the Mother Board of my mind.  A tad teased, I am, by two recent Circus Report reviews, one, by John Polacsek,  of the Shrine Flint program stubbornly staged within three real rings, and actually, more than once, filling those rings with three separate acts!  Another moment, 10 gals in the air on webs (Okay to use the words “gals”?)  The 3-ring option I am still a fan of ...  Then there's a very different circus, called Cirque Italia, this one without animals, and this one with a ring that rises way up to reveal, still down below, a circular pool of water. Show bills itself “World’s First Water Circus” (okay, we’ll skip what the Russians once did with water). Review is by Billy Earl ... In this sprawling circus-can-be-anything universe in which we now live, you’ve got choices, you do! — and sometimes, a different choice might be worth trying....

DE DUM DUM ... Okay, so I got something out here in a jiffy.  Hope you are still connected halfway myway — yeah, your damn smartie phone won’t leave you alone. Know why? Because you won’t let it leave you alone.  More on this thread up ahead, maybe ...

PONDERING A MOUNTING MYSTERY:  Petite Chinese acrobat named Wei Cao , reported missing  from the Ringling show in Atlanta since Monday, still apparently missing.  I'm  hopping she is okay, wherever she is ... Did you know that The Sound of Music is aiming for another  Broadway revival, due to open days.  Okay, now you know.  Amazing that the last of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals turned out to be by far their most commercially successful show.  And it still sounds great ...

DOWN HERE, yeah, I know, not much to thrill you up there?   Well, even Chuck Burnes, in Circus Report may not thrill those freak show addicts, for, thank the Gods of Victorian Taste, Chuck came on this week without one creepy photo.    Thanks, chuck!

I CAN DO BETTER than that.  Let me scrap through some papers nearby, back in a moment: Juggling world records, from Wiki, only thing I found still waiting to be talked up --- But then, my ego getting smashed down again sounded better.  It happened from a hate mail attack, while back, by some big A (Anonymous),  hating what I wrote about Anthony Gatto, which fairy — and then excitingly — stunned me.  I have raved over and over again about my encounter with the extraordinary juggler, me in the seats of Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza, he in the ring, discovering him on my very own.  You can put out a post 95% positive, but curse that 5% you dared say.  Say ONE BAD THING about a circus show, a performer, dead or alive, and you are a vicious stupid ill-informed idiot — besides which, you don’t know what you the h##!!!xxx!!L  you are talking about!

GATTO CORRECTED:  One thing Mr. Anonymous Fuming pointed out, for which I stand properly scolded, is that Gatto did appear with a number of European shows.  I’ll take Big A’s word for it, too lazy at the moment to dig deeper.

WE HAVE GONE, yes, practically no where, and wasn’t it a boring blast?   HELLO!  Do you HEAR ME?  Will you please put down your damn smartie phone for one moment?

I CAN'T WAIT to be sitting in a restaurant with some fiends, only, wanting to say something to the person next to me, finding he or she is on the phone. So, I will CALL he or she on my cell phone, and that way, right there next to each other, we can have a real cell phone conversation.  What a pathetic race of electronically-enclaved morons we are tuning ourselves into.

IT'S BEEN MY pleasure pretending to know what I’m talking about.  But, hey, If I think of anything better than this during the day, I’ll come back here and let you know.

A deal?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

UK Big Tops Drawing Psychiatric Attention ... US Circus Scene Under Seige from Dark Broadway Treatments: "Sideshow" a Flop, "Water" on the Way ... (It's Okay to Laugh)

Randomly round the hippodrome track, off a stack of papers, first on top down to the bottom ... dot ... dot ...dot. Brace yourself for more obtuse studies, Creepy clown crackdowns, and music theatre depictions of the dark side. 

Here comes Brit barker, Douglas McPherson, of London Town, for the defense of “Circus,” and when I henceforth say circus, take that to mean “traditional circus.”  Except I refuse to say “traditional.”  Do you say “traditional Broadway?”   “traditional cinema/”?   I say CIRCUS, thank you, and henceforth it’s up to you to know what I mean. ... Author and blogger McPherson (Circus Mania) from across the Big Pond, ruing yet more academic studies raining down like vice squads onto hapless circus lots.  Well funded — need a job Over There? — Circus Research Network (NCR) hiring  people to  “assess the positive social and psychological benefits on children from immigrant families of engaging in 6 months of circus skills training.”   ...  Another brainy study involves “applying a virtue ethics to the traditional circus community.”  Are you still with me, dot dot not?

Writes our London scribe,  “I think my favorite is the guy who got public funding to carry out a ‘community impact evaluation on a publicly funded community circus skills group’”  The finding may depress your self-esteem levels:  “Not doing circus skills training makes people less happy than doing it.”   Gosh, how emotionally stunted that makes me feel, if only I could have spent my formative years in the mud learning how to peddle peanuts  ....

What next: Scotland Yard quarantines all circus clowns, pending mandatory psychological testing?


And here comes -- no, there goes Sideshow,  the musical about Siamese twins which flopped again in revival drive to take the town on its return – with revisions.  Both runs lasted a few short months.  Chuck Burnes, who fancies geeky gory oddities back of bizarre banner lines (I cringe, in full wimp mode, over the pictures he posts in his Circus Report columns), was high on  Sideshow.  Sorry, Chuck  Seems ticket buys not willing pay a hundred bucks to watch so difficult a situation in song and dance.  “Younger than Springtime, Are Yous”?  "Tea for Three"?  Never made sense to me, though the score's lyrics (I said lyrics, not music) are richly in sync with the material.  But ... once a flop, always? ... Think Spider Man...

And who is that kid on parade toting a bucket full of water?  Why, oh yes!  He just got cast in another circus-themed  Broadway bound vehicle —  Water for Elephants!  Now, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (just kidding), this dark Gothic story might make it.   Can you hardly wait for yet another anti-circus assault?  How will they ever get an elephant onto the stage?

Books on parade! ...  The Greatest Shows on Earth, by Linda Simon, drawing raves from Brit reviewers, and Ernest Albrecht's From Barnum & Bailey to Feld, copies of both en route to local libraries, promise a relief from a recent spate of academically wrought titles, gender-studies, animal abuse, et all, strewn through sordid circus history.  I'm looking forward to taking a peak into each.   My only regret is that I had thought Albrecht was at work on a bio of Irvin Feld. Now, that might have been a study in megalomania fit for a proper Circus Research Network analyst.

Accidental journalism: Video-interviewer Lane Talburt — watch out, his camera may be coming after you! – favoring me with a DVD of his and other interviews on Kelly Miller, John Ringling North II top of the list.  Lane rarely asks indelicate questions, such as, well, how many people actually buy tickets to see your show?  But his camera does not hold back, photographing all the empty seats, which drove me to ask the camera's owner – Is what I see and have seen many times before -- few in the seats, an accurate reflection of biz trends over there?  Still no reply.  I might try e-mailing his camera.

Missing the man in the white hat when the crowds don't come:  More reason to wonder about business at Kelly Miller:  During Talburt's chat with a couple of performers (I've misplaced my DVD), we learn how North's positive spirit helps them get through periods of low attendance, and how they miss him when he is away.

Another partial-reporting tease: This from one-time Ringling clown Tim Torkelson, waxing long and thoughtful in Circus Report a while back, having taken grand kids to a big circus with all the staples, says he, but many patrons skipping out during intermission.  One of his suggestions for said show to boost its hold on the audience might be a peanut pitch, which makes me think he went to Ringling. I wish Tim would dare to disclose name of show; I'd like to know to which circus his observations apply  He’s leaving us in the dark to argue in the abstract.   I would e-mail his camera -- if he had one   

Bottom of the stack, that’s all folks!

Rest of what’s left, into the circular file.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Last Week's Great Writer Tease Revealed!

Last Sunday, I posted this, an excerpt from a long-ago book, believing it to be remarkably relevant to today:

 We created the computer, to do our will, but we can not make it do our will now.  It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The computer develops, but not on our lines.  The Computer proceeds  —  but not to our goal.    We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.

I substituted the term "The Machine" with "The Computer."

Who wrote it, and when?

E. M. Forster, in 1909, before the time of his great novels, the most famous of which is A Passage to India:

Here is an entry about the work in Wikipedia:

"The Machine Stops" is a science fiction short story (12,300 words) by E. M. Forster. After initial publication in The Oxford and Cambridge Review (November 1909), the story was republished in Forster's The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. After being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965, it was included that same year in the populist anthology Modern Short Stories.[1] In 1973 it was also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two. The story is particularly notable for predicting new technologies such as instant messaging and the Internet. The story is set in a post apocalyptic world where people are living underground because the surface is uninhabitable, and they rely on a giant machine to provide their needs."

I was astonished to discover this from one of my favorite authors.  I've read all five of his major novels, none of which, as I recall, hints at such a talent for science fiction.

The little book in which it appears, The Eternal Moment, was placed in front of my door by the lady across hall, with whom I communicate by passing notes -- easier than having to shout in her ear when we pass each other coming and going and her hearing aid is either not on or not working.  She's funny that way. 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Now Appearing at Theatre YouTube: Mary Martin in South Pacific – YES – Mary Martin! .... 2nd Feature: Kelli O’Hara in the Broadway Revival ... Curtain Up on the Digital Proscenium!

Ever wish you could have seen Mary Martin in South Pacific? If you’re willing to be the only person in the theatre, now you can.  But if grainy black and white film leaves you wanting, link in a blink to a front row seat at the glorious Lincoln Center revival of 2008.

And give your regards to YouTube!

Blessed with one of Broadway’s greatest scores ever, and with the courage to explore the perilous intersection of love and racial prejudice, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 hit, South Pacific, became the second longest-running Broadway musical at the time (behind only another, longer-running, R&H smash,  Oklahoma), and was awarded a Pulitzer prize for drama.

When it was revived, in 2008, at Lincoln Center, under the direction of Bartlett Sher, I was won over by the production’s shimmering professionalism  — 36 musicians in the pit, expansive sets that seemed to extend clear across the sea.  So thrilling, indeed, that I returned to New York the following year to see the show once again (from, as I would luck out, a superior seat), and liked it even more.

Keep in mind, for the point of this post, that I was watching it from a single fixed position.

Was it really that good?

No musical is perfect, not even South Pacific.  They are best seen in the medium for which they were conceived. On film in 1958, South Pacific fairly sustained its glowing reputation.  On television in 2001, with Glen Close playing (or slaying) the role of Nellie Forbush, it did not.

There is now a third emerging venue for Broadway addicts  — viewing filmed performances of musicals.  You can watch the Live From Lincoln Center film of South Pacific, broadcast on PBS in 2010, all the way through without breaks, on YouTube.   But beware: Multiple camera angles and closeups will be telling you where to look every beat of the way. And you may find yourself gazing up close at something you have long admired, only to discover flaws in the fabric.  Or rather, in this particular fabric.   Here are some of my reactions to the 2008 revival:

Some assets:

* Amdrew Samonsky's Lt. Joseph Cable marks the best acting performance in the show.  Although I miss his predecessor Matthew Morrison's stronger rendition of "Younger than Springtime," Samonsky's uniquely wrought Cable is even more impressive here.

* Loretta’s Ables Sayre’s Bloody Marry also favors a grittier realism, which deepens the tension in her angry confrontation with Cable over his refusal to marry Liat.  Another bravo performance.

* My Girl Back Home: How lucky we are to have this song!  It was dropped out of town from the original New York bound production, reinstated in the 1958 movie, as it is here.  The number's poignant innocence marks the genius of Dick and Oscar in mining lyrical gold from common ordinary moments between common ordinary people.  My brother Dick pointed out to me how Oscar Hammerstein, tellingly, did not write, for Cable to sing,  “I loved her a lot,” but “I liked her a lot.”

 * More realism in the wartime atmosphere and military scenes, credit advanced stage technology.

Some  drawbacks:

* Kelly O’Hara’s Nellie Forbush suffers a little from the SC factor: squeaky clean.   

* Paulo Szot’s Emile DeBeque is just okay. In closeups, Szot looks more like a fine singer dutifully acting than a fine actor having lost himself in the role.  Nor does Szot bring the illusion of advanced age to the role that Ezio Pinza did in the original.

* Between O’Hara and Szot, then, there is little age difference on the surface, thus rendering mute the younger woman-older man theme from the original that strengthened  the show’s social daring-do.  Easy to imagine the producers shunning this issue in order not to alienate all of those young girls out there said to keep Times Square ticket windows humming.
* Danny Burstein’s funny-to-fading Luther Billis disappoints:  Burstein starts out on a strong comedic note in “Nothing Like a Dame,” but then proceeds to slowly lose levity, as his persona hardens into the second act, making his drag scene in “Honey Bun” more a drag than a laugh. 

* Tediously long military dialogue: My biggest gripe with Oscar Hammerstein has been the excessive stretches of dialogue that mark his librettos.  Example here, Billis getting reprimanded for his shenanigans at sea.  This labored office encounter could have been dispensed with in less than half the lines.  



She, too, now lives on in YouTube,  albeit, in a black and white film of the 1951 London production at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, said to have been a virtual duplicate of the Broadway original, but without an audience present.  The show was filmed in 16mm  on Tuesday,  May 6, 1952, by four cameras, one placed in the balcony of the theatre.  The quality of the film is rough, not all scenes ideally -- or even quite fully -- framed.  For music theatre buffs, however, watching this may feel akin to discovering a long-lost and very rare archeological dig.  Writing about it in Playbill, Steven Suskin justly hails  “Mary Martin's legendary performance; not a Hollywood version, reconfigured for the screen, but Mary doing precisely what she did on stage when South Pacific first opened”

Martin proves herself all over again.   Sugar in her heart, yes-maybe, but deep down in them there bones, there is vinegar, too. ( She debuted on Broadway in a racy 1938 Cole Porter Musical, singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” waking up the next morning a star.)  I had never fully realized what a great actor she was, not just a musical theatre superstar, until now.   She IS Nellie Forubsh.  Another revelation is her terrific way with dancing, as full of magical animation as a Disney carton.  A miracle of mirth in motion. Has there ever been anyone like her? Will there ever be again?

Some other impressions.                                     

Balli Ha'i: A song that I have long regarded as lovely if a tad long –  I now regard as phenomenal, thanks to Murel Smith’s powerfully embracing rendition of the number, lifting it, and practically the entire theatre, into a transcendent mystical realm.  Little wonder hers would be the singing voice lip synced by Juanita Hall in the 1958 film.

Major miscasting:  Peter Grant, as Lt. Cable, delivers his songs well, but cuts a remarkably ineffectual figure.  On the upside, Fredd Wayne’s warmly amusing Luther Billis is about as funny as would Phil Silvers have been, had he played the role.

Well paired:  Wilbur Evans merges fine acting with commanding vocals to forge a persuasively earnest DeBeque, making him an ideal match for Martin.

Even Tony and Maria didn't hit the sack this fast, or did they?  The Cable- Liat overnight romance in a dubiously pay-as-you-lay-setting, neither speaking the other's language, continues to strain credibility.  Of course, all is forgiven given the glorious younger-than-springtime that follows, right? 

Prolonged military strategy scenes, especially in Act II, are even more tedious here than those in Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Center staging, stopping the show dead in its tracks.  But, then again, with no audience in the house, you are at a major disadvantage, it being understood that audience reactions influence our own reactions.  Well, all of us except for maybe John Simon.

All of this having been said, just being able to see Mary Martin in the bloom of this great American musical is a true and lasting treasure. 
When I talked up the Lincoln Center revival with my brother, urging him to consider flying back to New York to see it, I tempered my enthusiasm with this caveat:

“However, I should tell you — it is still South Pacific.”

Well, no, I should have added, “It is still South Pacific –  minus Marty Martin”



Sunday Morning with a Great Writer: He Foresaw a Spirit-Killing Technology

I give you the work of one of the world's greatest novelists.  I am quoting from one of his stories that struck me as remarkably timely  To make your read more challenging, I have only removed a term used then and replaced it with one we use now,  "The Computer."

When, do you think, was this written?  And by whom?   You do not know him for science fiction, which made my discovery of this tale yet more astonishing. 

Here it is:

We created the computer, to do our will, but we can not make it do our will now.  It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The computer develops, but not on our lines.  The Computer proceeds  —  but not to our goal.    We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die

Come back next week, and you will find out who wrote this.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Kelly Miller Lets a Few Go, Imports New Clowns, Hands Holder Two White Tigers, Ostroff, the Ringmaster's Whistle -- Young Finn's First Impressions of an American Cricus ....


Wonder of Wonders!

Back in the House of Ringling, sleuthing through cyber sawdust for clues to the new show out, here is what I and Doc Felix Watson have found in the key of exciting.  All of it contained in a post issued by new clown, apparently a Finn import, Sebastian ie Seppo Tauriainen.  (Notice how John Ringlilng North II has a way of attracting bloggers?)

I deduce the following, but keep in mind, this outfit often takes many weeks to piece itself fully and finally together, That said, here are some of the changes:

*  Missing from the lineup are Raul Oliveras, Armando Loyal, fire-eater Lamount, and clown John Sayre.

*  Three of last year's strongest acts are back:  Abrham Gebre, Nicolas Souren, and Amina & Zaia.

* Rebecca Ostroff, turning in her trapeze for the ringmaster's whistle.

* Ryan Holder getting two white tigers into his act. 

* Juggler Nicolas Sourens' wife, Kimberly, has a pot in the show

* Dogs, ducks, and a llama from Carolyn Rice.

Here is Sebastian's full post in rough on-line to-English translation (no corrections made)

 Clown Sebastian ie Seppo Tauriainen to conquer the new continent, and sent its first report: We started our tour in the United States, the traditional Kelly Miller Circus on 5 February, the Rio Grande Valley area of South Texas. Here, the population seems to speak mostly Spanish, so I took a crash course in the language of the tent boys numbers. The presentation is a couple of hours long and consists of similar numbers, as we have up. The difference may have been the host of a major role in the program and the special intermediate numbers as some kind of nuts sale of the campaign during the presentation. People rush to buy bags of nuts Ring Master hehkuttaessa topic riding arena. In some pähkinäpussilla obviously to win something, but this must be consulted in more detail. Presentation dates back to the air-acrobat Rebecca Ostroff . He was seen in Finland Christmas time, Water for Elephants movie. Rebecca has toured for years with Kelly Miller and now for the first time the role of the Ring Master.

One of the circus of the most popular standard of the performers. Fagolino - CLOWNS Italian clown who visits the same ring three times. Arwen, Kimberly and Emilie - DANCE GROUP Appears in the same ring a few times of the 1920s Charleston style numbers. Fridman - LAUTASNUMERO Peruvian-rounder, who is also working multi-man circus. It has been repairing my home tour. Carolyn & Shirley - DOGS, ducks and llama Many will remember Finlandia several times visited the Pat Harrison and his hot dogs. This number is similar to the cart, but, surprisingly, the dogs were really dressed hodareiksi - yes, the dogs run a riding arena rolls between mustards on the back. This comfortable hassle-free number on the second performer has been the Director of lovely Irish lady Shirley. Sebastian - Ventriloquist Oulu alone speaker in a big country. WEB PRODUCTION This impressive number is the air coming from the Ringling Brothers circus and falls Kelly Miller, a year-round program. In the five air acrobats occurs at the same time in different parts of the indoor arena. This number is for masts tuned to the specific cables, to acrobats have been around the indoor arena. Nicolas Sourens - Juggler Juggler Very good traditional instruments balloons, beam angles and tires. NIC wife will be an excellent partner in issue. Abraham Gebre - jugglers Nigerian artist is now the second year to perform here. He has been seen in the past as close as Sweden Cirkus Olympia and Scott included. His number is very good and speedy. Abraham juggling hats in addition to angled discs on the bounce these balls. The presentation is very action-packed and energetic. Zaya and Mindeh - STRAPS Mongolian couple shows a beautiful air-acrobatic interludes straps. Kimberly Sourens - KEYSTONE jugglers wife mak Here our program: Ryan Holder - Tiger Six magnificent tigers, as well as two white tigers. es an elegant trapeze number of French music. Mike Rice - zebras and camels more exotic animals in the same ring. Number is the number camel surprisingly packed. Probably due to the speed the pace is maintained by the nimble zebras. Tommy Demry - the elephant in the circus staff wondered before training begins, it looks like the number one elephant, when usually they have always been three. However good it looked. Elephant namely dancing instructor with Tommy. And when the going gets wild grab the elephant in Tambourines kärsäänsä and will be accompanied by dance. Quite a peculiar sight. Zaya - contortion Straps issue appeared Zaya makes another artful number.

Sebastian's First Impressions of Kelly Miller Layout, Midway and Personnel
 I've selected some highlights for House of Ringling Fans -- very interesting, how a young European  sees us. 

The circus is beautifully decorated throughout. The cars and wagons sides are made ??of intricate paintings. A number of points found in the circus owner John Ringling North II 's name. His uncle was the famous Ringlin Brothers and their circus with John spent his childhood  ...  Both of these gentlemen (North and Royal) have been very good company and very approachable people ...Technical staff will be in Mexico. The circus 85 people for a bunch of people have their own kitchen trolley Cook House , where we eat. The canteen will be hosted by a very cheerful Jeremiah , who is a great cook and a club officer.

The circus entrance of Midway is filled with a wide range of temptation before the tent at night: face painting, animal horseback riding and photography, souvenir stores, balloons, bouncy castle and Sideshow. Dollar's take a look at monelaista miraculous mm. mummified mermaid, a crocodile head, El Chupacabra, and many other creatures. Generally speaking, these attractions are not alive, but in a display case ground twice something live bugs. This ihmeellisyysmuseon curators are tiger tamer Ryan and mechanic Danny . The circus kiosks are to the local way also very versatile. For sale is a standard candy, jätskien, cotton candy and popcorn, but also corn dogs, Funnel Caces, Sno Corns, Peanuts, Caramel Apples and much more.

The circus in Mexico made.  New tent is about the size of the tent of Circus Finlandia and can house 1,100 spectators. Tent erection and dismantling seems to be going in a different way than I have seen before, and the tent structure is slightly different. The audience can be pitched very quickly. The stands are built on top of the long wagons, which are six in the tent. These wagons are opened hydraulically and grandstand aluminum benches is complete. Fully round shape, this grandstand may not be, but it works really well. Aitio a stadium- Ring Side does not include separate lodges but it is a full circle shape around the fenced perimeter of the riding arena. Tent will be a $ 16 basic access to tickets (adult or child will pay the same price approx. € 14) and the inside is possible to pay a fee of $ three, and thus get for better Ring Side locations. Ticket Cashier given to the people discount coupons for the price of 2 euros off the leaves. These are distributed to all, so the ticket price is actually $ 14, ie approx. 12 euros. Our tour is now writing this lasted for four days, and the back nine successful screen. I'm looking forward to what this country has to offer. There will be such. Amish-filled shows, when the parking area is more carriages than cars. Our tour will last until early November.