Saturday, August 18, 2007

Animal Stars Shine in Ringling’s Tacky Bellobration

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, 137th edition.

Oakland, California, August 18. Tickets: $15 to $95.

After seeing Ringling-Barnum’s latest, I was surprised to discover that the $15.00 program magazine does not contain a show order listing of the acts. That’s another first from the Felds in recent seasons which I have just now noticed. The strange omission only adds to my sense of sadness and uncertainty about the plight of this once great circus.

Perhaps the producers are leaving themselves the freedom to tinker with the program, although it needs more than tinkering to achieve first-rate respect.

It is certainly not a bad show — except for a number of things about it that work against its better ingredients and give it a slightly desperate air. For starters, direction — or lack of. Out of the gate comes a lumbering parade of dancers and performers in semi-disarray. Announcing the show this year is the emphatically efficient Tyron McFarlan — whose generic contributions, however, tend to be as unmemorable as those of the band and of certainly the lights. Or are the lights purposely confusing in order to detract our attention from certain feats booked to fill time and space? Another irritating distraction is the video screen, a holdover from last year’s critically dismissed “breakout” edition. On it are projected images of Bello, the touted star, of various acts in motion and, during the interval, of ads and fun questions.

The setting for a Feld circus grows more schizophrenic with each passing year. Kenneth and Nichole have evidently convinced themselves that the sight of three rings — even one – marks them as hopelessly old hat. This season they have introduced what might be termed straight line ring curbs, and during the performance the crew continuously reconfigures them. This constant shuffling (like moving the deck chairs on a doomed ship), only reinforces the off-putting image of a circus suffering an identity crisis. It makes it feel like the show is being performed through a freeway collision zone. I think I prefer last year’s parking lot over this.

Not until the superior second half -- which includes a pair of flying returns performed by the Poemas and a double cannon shot from the Misers -- does the show reveal a semblance of the old Ringling magic. A taste of that magic clearly comes alive when the bulls and the gals, decked out in fetching oriental garb, enter to introduce a fine display of equilibristics by the Zunyi Troupe, six women from Southern China. Here too, the music for once is outstanding. Everything is of a piece. Unfortunately, a costume splash that promises Chinese gusto only delivers the one rather static display.

This is Bello’s show, we are told, though they fail to make a case for him as super star. And the skimpy parades pushing his status are about as humdrum as they can be. Worse still, they fail to exploit Bello’s appeal or talents during climactic moments. I’ve always found Bello to be a cool dude, more cute and charming than amusing. He has fun working standard tricks on the sway pole. And he delights working a double big wheel novelty with Nikolas Wallenda. Watching him once again, it struck me that he might make a very good -- indeed, perhaps the very first ever -- performing ringmaster.

Ironically, the animals are the true stars of this edition. The Olates and their engaging pooches from Chili are one of the best dog acts I’ve seen in years. Inventive and clean, snappy and infectiously upbeat. In the big cage, Tabayara Maluenda, another Chilean, was another rare refreshment for me. He is a hoot. Loved his frantic manner of talking loudly to his charges while directing them through impressive executions. A great gag has him ordering the last tiger to break from a stand up pose and exit. No luck. So Tab switches to Spanish, and his tiger complies. Very funny. Think Joan Rivers in a cage trying both to talk her way out of misfortune and prove to the world that she is another Mabel Stark.

The elephants were persuasive and to the point: three of them did head stands; all of them did sit ups and mini-long mounts from pedestals. Solid circus. Solid excitement from the audience.

Only did the formless liberty horse routines fail to impress. Among other so-so items, a teeterboard offering by the Palazovi’s is only okay. And the dashing Aguilar Brothers bring youthful energy to a double high wire act that lacks compelling content. Opening aerial displays, likewise, are pretty but uneventful.

The dozen company jesters scored at least once, in a quirky tv satire, "Dancing with the Clowns," which I would welcome seeing again.

Clearly, there could and should be a greater impact here. And less Feld frizzlze. And therein lies the perennial problem. During pre show, the producers have the audacity to work a brainwashing commercial for Campfire Marshmallows by having the clowns coax the kids to repeat the phrase over and over again. (It makes Jim Judkins’ Peterson Peanut pitch seem positively innocent) I found this unseemly.

I wondered what sort of a crowd I would find following last year’s let down. Much bigger might indicate that, commercially speaking, Ringling is on the right track. The crowd I sat with (perhaps a fourth of the seats were occupied, and a number did not return for the second half) if anything suggested at best stagnant interest. My rough house count would be three thousand, maybe a little less than last year’s turnout for the same Saturday morning slot. About a third of the seats are not sold because of the new shrunken set up.

Of course, it might be the animal protesters outside more than the show itself that is the real cause for stagnant or reduced attendance. Oakland, once regarded as a great circus town, is still a part of the most liberal region in the country. Across the bay in San Francisco, Ringling has now been missing in action for two consecutive seasons.

In the program magazine, Nicole Feld is quoted as stating “This year we set out to outdo not only last year’s show, but 136 years of shows. And you know what? We did it with Bellobration."

And you know what? Ah, that old reliable Feld family confidence is something to behold. Dream on, Ms. Co-Producer.

Overall score: ** ½


Comments? Have any of you five out there seen the show? I welcome all opinions, well aware that this evolving saga can be viewed from many different angles.

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