Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Tale of Two Circus Reviews: Bellobration or Bust?

It’s lonely being a circus critic, for under the big top those two words sound awfully pretentious and irrelevant to a lot of people. When you take on mediocre acts, ill-directed shows and especially sacred cows, you run the risk of resentment and more. I’ve been publicly blasted in print, once likened, many seasons ago, to “vermin” in one of a slew of hate ads taken out against me in the Circus Report. During my tumultuous teens when the Greatest Show On Earth was foundering through its own tumultuous last season under canvas, I sent off a letter to the circus claiming that all of the organizational chaos was making me sick. In return, Henry Ringling North sent me a tactfully tart note suggesting I see a doctor.

Blame it on the late White Tops editor Walter H. Hohenadel, who dared to publish my first review when I was only 14-years old and who let stand my nitpicking away over choreography and costuming and off-pointe dancing showgirls. This act of courage (or blind faith in an article he might not have fully read) sent my precocious ego into orbit. Ever since I have suffered from chronic criticitis.

My favored mode for turning out a review is being able to write it before I have seen any other notices of the same show. This forces me to walk my own high wire, to commit to my own thoughts in a lonely state of raw independence, totally uninfluenced by what others think. A little scary, yes, but an exercise I relish. I like to think it keeps me honest — or honestly stupid.

Such was the case with my review of Bellobration. I had not seen a single write up of the show before posting my reaction to it last Saturday. Then I took a look at a review by Leslie Katz of the San Francisco Examiner, which a friend had sent me. What a surprise to find how amazingly in sync we are on so many of the acts and production elements of the 137th, though we reach markedly different conclusions.

Katz is a staunch New Pickle Circus supporter who once derided the “ tackiness” of Ringling Bros., which she now seems to miss. Well, we are all missing something, aren’t we.

Here is how our reviews compare in most respects

Favorite acts, in order discussed:

She: dogs, tigers

Me: dogs, tigers

Production elements:

She “Costumes seem thinner and less sparkly... the big production numbers don’t quite have the delightfully tacky glitz and glamour of years gone by. Still they work.”

Me “The skimpy parades ... are about as humdrum as they can be.” I did praise the oriental spec which introduced the Chinese equilibrists.


She: Makes no comment other than to note there are fewer of them.

Me: I liked the “Dancing with Clowns” gag, writing. “I would welcome seeing it again.”

The new double Wheel of Steel:

She: “less engaging than it sounds.”

Me: I make no comment; it struck me as inconsequential.

Bello Nock:

She: “Affable and able stunt man, “ [but] his “shtick doesn’t quite sustain the show.”

Me: “More cute and charming than amusing.... they fail to make a case for him as superstar”

Ringmaster Tyron McFarlan

She: “A commanding presence”

Me: “Emphatically efficient... [but] unmemorable.”

The "story line":

She: “less engaging than it sounds.”

Me: I don’t even mention it because it struck me as near non-existent..


She: did not pass comment

Me: “unmemorable.”


She: No comment.

Me. “persuasive and to the point.”

The Aguilar Bros.

She: “gets your heart started.”

Me: “dashing ... [but the act] lacks compelling content.”

Our conclusions.

Here we differ greatly. I was so put off by all of the distracting staging gimmicks from video screen to straight line ring curbs constantly being reconfigured, that it made me feel at times like I was watching the circus “through a freeway collusion zone.” Thus, I handed the 137th two-and-a-half stars rather than three. Katz, a kinder gentler critic (whose review strikes me as rating 3 stars), was apparently able to look through and maybe ignore it all, for she wrote “traditional elements ... are by far its most fascinating parts.” On that, we emphatically agree. Boffo to us both! And I will let Ms. Katz have the last word.

Me: “Not until the superior second half does the show reveal a semblance of the old Ringling magic ... clearly, there could and should be greater impact here.”

She: “...a pleasure to enjoy each astonishing feat as it happens, rather than experience the frustration of trying to look three places at once.”

Lonely up there on the high wire. And each time I come down, sometimes it’s not as bad I fear.


henry edgar said...

the note from henry ringling north part was priceless -- i didn't learn to really appreciate your blunt but honest style until many years later, when i started reviewing movies, tv shows, theater, concerts and circuses and slowly learned that honesty is the best policy even if it's not popular. when you were working on your john north book, did you ever admit to being that precocious kid who dared tell the emporers their clothes weren't always as nice as they thought?

Showbiz David said...

I loved Henry Ringling North. I also riled him years later on another matter, about which I lost my cool, but he always forgave and forgot. I never mentioned my youthful indiscretions, fearing they would sour our relations. It was Mr. North who made it possible for me to interview his brother John. And that was a MAJOR gift to me. After the book was published, I never heard from Henry North again. I have to think there are things in there that bothered him, which made me sad. I could go on. He was a very classy man!