Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Star Turns Transcend Big Apple’s Choppy “Celebrate!"

Circus review: Big Apple Circus

Cunningham Park, Queens, May 16, 11 a.m.

The reason, I believe, that Paul Binder and Michael Christensen have been able stay in the biz for a commendable thirty year run is due to their respect for the best acts available. That is the one consistent I have noticed, having only seen four editions over the three decades. So my impressions that follow may be deemed by the skeptical as too sketchy.

What Binder and Christensen, I regretfully find myself thinking once more, are not so smart at doing is production. Then again, Binder’s passion is a European thing — it’s all about the act, period — and old Europe, which may still linger on in his mind, was never much about the sort of presentational showmanship that has thrived both in the U.S. and Russia, and now, dominantly in Montreal.. While I watched “Celebration,” I could not help but compare it to Big Apple’s near-masterpiece of 2005, Pictueresque.

Ironically, this edition may contain on balance, a slightly higher grade of talent overall, but it’s in the “writing” (that being the work of Christensen and director Michel Barette) where things fail to jell. Where Old Europe returns to the tent. They start out with a wide-ranging mix of components from gold to ersatz gold minus virtually anything in the air (Binder, it would appear, continues down a pc road by shunning exotic animals and aerial daredevils, perhaps unduly influenced by Cirque du Soleil trends): There is the bright engaging English ringmistress Carrie Harvey who, oddly, never quite seems to realize a consistent role. Indeed, in a sense she must compete for ring space with two other recurring characters — a problem of focus not solved by the producers.

One of those figures is star guest clown Fumagalli. The other is, of course, Barry Lubin’s Grandma, for whom — in service to another Paul Binder article of faith — spots must be found. Lubin, who also draws a credit line as creative consultant, enjoys a privilege like no other I can think of under the big top. In fact, it may be unprecedented: He gets to take many many days off, during which time his character is essayed by a stand in — likely the case when I saw the show. Given Lubin’s extraordinary contract, this enterprise might be more aptly titled Grandma’s Big Apple Circus. Producers enslave themselves to such dubious addictions at their own artistic peril. Among the reasons -- they deprive themselves of the necessary freedom to create from scratch, on a blank slate, totally new work.

Production and story touches sprinkled throughout a disjointed program (performed to original music that favors a fiddle-string sound) fail to establish a central aesthetic force such of the sort that made Pictueresque so enchanting and complete. Here, the incidental posturing and sight enhancements come off as ambling, even gratuitous, rather than propulsive. For instance, during a pleasant liberty horse routine hosted by Yasmine Smart, Fumagalli makes a cameo, but without a comedy hook or payoff, which thus makes no sense whatsoever. Grandma does add a touch of holiday charm by wiping off the frost from a Macy’s store window, behind which, a delightful troupe of Irina Markova's dogs emerge. Inspired intro to an animal turn of astonishing dexterity and amusement. I see Monte Carlo gold. One of those dogs, by the way, twirled a hula hoop! -- finally, a hoopster I can believe in.

And Markova's act alone is worth the price of admission, and worth even the inexcusably long wait under rain and in mud behind long lines of school children. Why was there nobody out there to tell us, what I learned ten minutes later, of another very fast entrance for single ticket holders? I’ve never seen such a botched up front door operation, so oblivious to basic customer service. The BAC program magazine lists a multitude of staff names, surely somebody could make the front door a less disorganized place. And might they not recruit more than two people to sell concessions after the show? Thinking back to tenters less funded, less talented and less lucky, both Circus Vargas and Circus Chimera’s front doors are managed with proactive, exemplary ease and dispatch. I suggest that BAC hire Jim Judkins.

By far, for me, the biggest — indeed, major — disappointment was the band and the original score. Both unmemorable. Same conductor — Rob Slowik — different mix of composers. Yes, the music is functionally alive, but hardly distinguished. Rarely was I inspired as I was through almost the entirety of Picturesque. How true it is, I say over and over to myself, that a circus can change drastically from one season to the next..

Okay, enough complaining. Costumes are festive. Pacing is okay to maybe okay. And when the best acts are in motion (I placed six of them as outstanding), nothing else matters, and they give this show undeniable luster and force. I’m thinking a remarkably inventive group jump roping number devised by Kovgar and his whirling acrobats, who are back in dazzling form; also, of course, their terrific tent raising springboard exploits that bring the show to an exhilarating finish.

And let’s bring back Markova’s doggies for an encore. Miraculous training and showmanship! Other turns in the world class category: Kris Kremo breaks the mold with a persona closer to the cool magician than to that of agile juggler. He manipulates a number of blocks through incredibly fluid and complex patterns, though, surprisingly, I found him weak on stage presence.

Cong Tiam delivers the finest slack-wire routine I think I’ve ever seen, executing a variety of moves and tricks with the sort of polish and finesse that in and of itself supplies impeccable satisfaction. What a delight to see more Asians advancing to aerial art, for they bring such welcome perfection to the sawdust.

Among the secondary pleasures, the Huesca Brothers draw sharp excitement from a clean workout on the risley.

And then there’s this compelling character named Fumagalli. Great circus clowns are characters, not pretty faces alone, and here is a great working clown. Starkly defined, full of self-assumed authority. Commanding. From the moment Fumagalli enters the tent, broom in hand and a brazen penchant for selectively sweeping heads of hair, he establishes himself in no uncertain terms, and it’s this robust air of ownership — like that of the late Otto Griebling or the Russian jester Karandash — that sets him apart. Oh, what fun he and audiences would have had back in a Ringling three-ring heyday. He is what he is emphatically, and to that, I say, Bravo!

Now, Fumagalli has a partner named Daris, and what a team they make. Perfect compliments. Daris, we can tell, is just as amused by his partner — just as desirous of setting him off into comedy chaos — as we are. In a first half bit, “Someone Please Set the Table,” they specialize in slapstick, each trying to best the other in body whacks, etc. Somehow, timing and all, it is a simple, well choreographed joy to watch them at work. Especially to see Fumagalli getting whacked by one of his own backfiring props. And never to know when next fate will pelt him one in the kisser. There is wonderful bravado here. Not so in the second half, when they return in an overly talky skit in which Fumagalli showers half the front row with fountains of water from his mouth. I found this repetitive and tiring. But make no mistake, we are in the presence of a major big top personality. And I hope that somebody in immigration will refuse to let him leave the country. And that a circus that plays the west coast will nab him so that I can see him again.

Circus seasons come and go. I won’t forget some of these excellent artists. Kudos to Binder and Christensen for thirty dedicated years!

Overall marks: * * *

[photos from Big Apple Circus program magazine]


(Special note: Evidently responding to a reference I made to Big Apple Circus in the post below, company manager Don Covington e-mailed his concern, implying that the performance I saw was inferior -- "the dynamic in the big top is completely different than it is for other performances" -- because these morning shows are shortened for school kids. I did not know this, nor does the BAC website point this out. My review as written before Don e-mailed me stands, for I am reviewing the show I actually saw. This is the same thing I do with all circuses, anonymously purchasing my ticket. I've seen Ringling a few times on Saturday mornings. If the Big Apple Circus believes its morning shows are not up to its higher standards, then I believe the organization bears an ethical responsiblity to asterisk such performances with a footnote to the effect -- "Special shortened version for school kids." Of course, had I known this, I would have booked tickets to another performance. I saw BAC's Picturesque on a Saturday at noon.)


henry edgar said...

david -- off the subject, but while i was in the hospital for the past two weeks, i finally read your book about the russian circus and i just wanted to let you know that, while i am not particularly a fan of the russian circus (i like the american concept and hate the use of mechanics, as you do) it made me want to head for the soviet union and watch as many shows as i could! you made the soviet circus come to life as no one else has.

Showbiz David said...

Dear Henry, Thank you for your very kind comments. Brngs back memories of being in Russia researching. I am sorry to hear you were in the hospital. I hope you are okay and recovering fine. Take care and stay in touch...

Alan Cabal said...

The Big Apple Circus is one of the very few things I miss about New York, having left for good in 2005. Guy LaLiberte may be a billionaire, but Paul Binder is more of a CHARACTER. Sorry to hear that Barry is using a stand-in. I always wanted BAC to do GRANDMA MEETS THE RAMONES...

Don said...


We were pleased that you were able to see the show during your short visit to New York. My email to you was not meant to infer that our 11 am performances are in any way inferior to those presented at other times. They only difference between a weekday morning show and one presented at other times is the length. Some portions of the performance are condensed in order to tailor the total length to accommodate school groups that must be on their way to meet bus schedules.

Yes, you did indeed watch Matthew Pauli as Grandma during the performance that you attended. Our program material notes that the role of Grandma will be played throughout the season by either Barry Lubin or Matthew Pauli.

Finally, the title of this year's 30th anniversary edition of Big Apple Circus is "Celebrate!"

Best wishes,

Don Covington

Anonymous said...

David, I think your reviews are always fair and certainly your take on BAC was anything but negative. Let me take issue however with the notion of "production." Haven't seen the 30th Anniversary edition of BAC, but I'd be hard pressed to come up with many "flaws" in the production of earlier editions that I've had the pleasure of attending. If anything it's the "over production" associated with Montreal shows that raises the question, "Is it circus?" and leaves their offerings feeling increasingly stale after many years of success. I might suggest that there's room for an imperfect storyline even in the very best circus, because storyline is such an artificial construct grafted on to any show. Nothing speaks to over production more than say seeing Krone while on holiday in Europe, then flying home to see Cirque. One is clearly the magic of circus, the other merely the magic of the artificial.
Agree that BAC has suffered for lack of the outstanding animal acts it once featured.

Showbiz David said...

Don Covington, thanks for your message above. I have added to my special note at the end of my review one of the things you told me in your e-mail. I thought it was only fair to you, BAC, and to my readers to know that I was, unfortunately, reviewing a truncated performance. Best of luck on your season...