Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How Good – or Bad – is “Over The Top!”? Is Ringling These Days?

After posting my own review, I searched cyberspace to see what others are saying about the show. The only review I recalled before writing mine was a favorable notice in a New York paper.

First, cybercritics, among whom, I must skeptically assume, there are shills galore. Either blasting Ringling because they hate the sight of animals on parade or praising Ringling because, well, you know about the Feld press department. That having been said, here they are.

Trip Advisor lends a fairly uniform impression of bitter customer disdain: “A waste of money!” “Worst circus I ever saw.” As with all sites, hard to know in every case which edition is being reviewed. Seems the Gold edition in particular has patrons cursing. But remember, these are impressions from questionable sources.

Two ticketing websites, TicketsNow and Goldstar, are both loaded with near uniform praise. Strange, on one site, participants often select “brilliant acting,” and “engaging plot” to describe their overall appreciation.

Newspapers: Unlike the Big Apple Circus, which prints many of the reviews it receives (I do not know if that also includes the bad ones, I have not checked carefully), Ringling — and I searched as hard as I could — does not print any. Could this be because it gets so few? Might the Felds, in fact, work the press for feature stories that lend the appearance of reviews rather than actual reviews?

My searching turned up notices in only two major cities:

New York: Two major dailies both turned out sunny notices. One is The New York Times, which seems to be a friend of Ringling's. It also endorsed the first ringless outing in 2006, in glaring contrast to mostly negative reactions from a number of big-city critics. Of Over the Top! Lawrence Van Gelder’s rather non-specific notice reads more like a recycled press release than the sort of review I would expect from the Times. “And for the most part,” he concludes, “Over the Top attains the summit of spectacle.”

San Francisco: The San Francisco Chronicle published a scathing review (surely one of the worst ever awarded a Feld product) by Steven Winn. And who is Winn? A long time theatre and arts critic for the paper, who issued highly upbeat reviews of at least two previous visits by Ringling to the city, in 1996 and 1999. In fact, I have found his writing to be generally even-handed. Here is a link:


Mr. Winn’s review, published the day before I posted mine, eerily echoes many of my own feelings.

What really matters, I suppose, is what the kids think, for they are the ones for whom these shrunken Ringling deconstructions are being fashioned and scripted. From a youngster writing for The San Diego Union Tribune, Cristina Martinez: “The show has something for everyone and will leave you on the edge of your seat, in awe ... I do have to say that there was almost too much to look at, and it was difficult to focus on the individual acts. At times, it seemed more like a musical than a circus...My rating: B”

And that’s entertainment.


henry edgar said...

david - regarding your comment about ringling encouraging features rather than reviews -- this seems to be a general trend with newspapers today. they prefer to send someone to do a feature rather than an interview. i think it's a combination of both improved journalistic standards and taking the easy way out. the feature enables the paper to cover the circus without the inherent problems of a review. few papers have staff members who are even semi-qualified to review a circus, and the editors know it. at the same time, any good reporter/writer can do a good story on something/somebody without knowing anything about the subject. it's win/win -- the show gets a story without taking a chance on a review, the newspaper gets a quality piece without taking heat from readers about the writer's opinions, one way or another. also, the feature can usually run earlier, while the show is more likely to be in town. a review often runs after the show is gone or nearing its final performance unless it's at least a 4-day stand. the writers also prefer this approach because they aren't going out on a limb on something they know nothing about. Cirque du soliel is an exception; it's theatrical nature puts it within the qualifications of a theatre critic rather than somebody trying to analyze the bungee poles or how good an aerial act with a mechanic might be (ie is the mechanic really neceessary or covering for a performer afraid to go into the air without one)

i've always been suspicious of small town reviews. i know how easily writers can be fed info -- i did it on a regular basis and it worked extremely well, particularly if i sat with the reviewer and made sure his family had plenty of popcorn, cokes, cotton candy, etc. it resulted in great reviews with "inside knowledge" as i spoon-fed info . on the other end of the spectrum, once i made the switch from press agent to entertainment writer, i was sometimes subjected to second guessing. for example, an editor outranking me saw the show and says "I hope you say nice things about that act because my kids loved it." even if i knew the act was a badly-done firstie act. one incident i will never forget involved one of the burn-the-town circuses, which i gave probably the worst review i ever gave a circus. i gave more space to the band than anything else because the band was much better than the show, which was lousy. i turned in the review about 2 am and went home. i was awakened at 8 by my editor, who said she had recieved so many negative calls that she couldn't run a review that was sugar-coating a circus just because i loved the circus. i was forced to turn a harsh review into something vicious because my editor -- witout seeing the show -- decided it was absolutely horrible. the same editor who backed me up on so many things, who fought for extra money for out of town trips, etc. it's easy to complain about journalistic meddling, but the reality was that if i had refused, she would have rewritten the review anyway. in that case, wouldn't a feature story have been better than a review?

newspapers are sometimes caught in bad situations becasue of the complexities of reviewing a circus, the variables that can determine quality from one day to the next (does the lot make the riding act and the other horse acts unsafe? losing them is often the diffeernce in a good show and a bad show) and add in the increasing sloppiness of today's circus performances overall, and most shows might be better off without reviews.

Showbiz David said...

Henry, Thanks so much for your lavish honesty in sharing your professional experience from the inside with us. Most informative, eye-opening and valuable! Yes, so many variables and all the pressures working against you. Lets' face it, the very idea of circus reviewing is not a very nice thing to do in many ways, and the circus has been able for the most part to insulate itself from "reviews." I marvel at all the fine "amateur" movie reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes on the web, whose work I value. Nothing like it under the big tops. Not meant to be for a form of entertainment equal, in the public's mind, to a "holdiay." American press agents (I as you know worked for Sid Kellner a season and also tried my best) were shrewd in building up this element of the circus. And I don't blame them for doing a crack job. So there will always be the natural tension. You lived through it. My best.