Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ringling-Barnum's "Over The Top!" is Another Ringless Grab Bag

Circus review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Over the Top!
Oakland, August 16
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Given a looming lawsuit over its disputed handling of elephants, reports of declining attendance and the understandable desire to redefine itself in the vexing age of Cirque du Soleil and PETA, what, indeed, is “The Greatest Show On Earth” to do?

Go European and anchor itself to a star clown? Lay on more Disney? More Cirque? Back to the straight-ahead past with a no-nonsense parade of authentic circus turns?

Whatever it is to do, Kenneth Feld’s smorgasbord approach continues apace, with a new emphasis on old-world clowning. This means that the art of circus per se must take a back seat to the hyperactive Feld framework. There are the usual fireworks and visual add-ons (gone are those annoying video screens; new are overhead grids on which Times Square-like images, some nicely atmospheric, are flashed); And there are degrees of admirable inventiveness here, too, although they tend to consume far too much time. Featured clown Tom Dougherty engages ringmaster Chuck Wagner in a running duel, grossly in need of editing, for possession of the latter’s red hat. Altogether, these sidebar elements both enhance and drag down the program’s principal assets. Over the Top! is not nearly as exciting as it may sound.

The competent performers of the 138th edition seem at times to have been inserted between the ongoing duel over that red hat, a story line given Shakespearean attention. It did, to be fair to the kiddies, engage their emotions now and then. As for the dozen or so house joeys, they are little used to any great affect.

Remember the Felds, only a few years ago, opting for two-hour brevity? Very welcome, wasn’t it. Didn’t last very long, did it. Maybe concession sales plummeted. And the designer souvenirs on sale here, if you take the time to look, deserve an art gallery of their own.

The most troubling deficit here is Ringling’s apparent refusal to reinstate its famed signature set pieces, despite reported indications that it had done so. Now, there is not even half a ring. Only a black-top performance area about as inspiring as a spanking new Nevada airstrip. There is one moment, to be sure, during Jenny Vidbel’s delightfully well crafted white horse drill (a refreshing first half highpoint), when we are confronted with the image of a ring in the form of a giant inner tube. Black too.

Artistic suicide -- or a shrewd artistic transition in progress? Whatever it may be, by depriving the “acts” of a ring – and by squeezing them between red hat episodes — these actions have the unintended effect of minimizing and even degrading their potential impact. In particular, the animals seem lost and in limbo out there without the circular symbols of magic that link them in the public’s mind to “circus.” A pity. It made me feel in limbo too, watching maybe the passing of an era. I longed for that familiar sense of place. Remember when the arena went dark, three illuminated rings appeared and the audience shared the most wonderful sigh?

(At the ticket window, I was shown a diagram of the arena that included three rings, and my heart skipped a beat.)

Co-producers Kenneth and Nicole Feld seem resolved to dump the old format. Maybe they are subliminally preparing their customers for a day without Jumbo, a day inevitably closer to an ice show without ice.

Production numbers deliver the expected flash and pyrotechnics. The kids are again hauled around the arena during a token parade that leads into intermission. Music and/or amplification is simply awful through the first forgettable half, but it does come impressively alive with the tiger act in the second part and redeems itself somewhat through the superior end sequences. (I can’t believe that I was thinking more favorably of the Vargas taped score than of this live band.)

To the rescue, late in the program, comes yet another rush of exhilarating Chinese acrobats, the Henan Troupe. They thrust themselves from poles to poles, turning somersaults en route in a manner I’ve never before seen. They are phenomenal. They get a very effective production build up, memorable in costume design and scenic effects, even if it sounds and looks like Cirque du Soleil meeting up with the Lion King.

Preceding the Henans are a trio of solid offerings that offer the class and dazzle that Ringling-Barnum once delivered in spades: Wellington Silva works between two single traps with old-fashioned bravado; the Flying Caceres twist and twirl from a two-tired rigging; and the elephants charm, although at a tepid pace. Indeed, the exotics this year are so well behaved, they hardly look exotic. More like animated props. Another curious deficit brought to us by the modern era.

Most everything else is respectably adequate. Overproduced and yet oddly under realized. Geared, I take it, to tickle the moppets and sell plenty of designer concessions. Kenneth Feld is not for nothing probably the richest man who ever ran an American circus.

After taking in last year’s show, I felt a keen interest to return. Sorry to say, not so much this time around. Perhaps I am already dreading the birth of another “power clown.” Now if I were only ten years old I might have been genuinely charmed by all the fuss over that red hat. Might not still be wishing instead for more jugglers and tumblers. The circus: is this its future?

Overall score: * * 1/2


Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
What the hell, are you insane!!! This revue sucks, not like the brilliant one's you did on Vargas and Solei, and others. LOL Just kidding, Pal. You know for a fact, I am rooting for the Greatest Show on Earth to make a comeback, with GGW coming through the curtain, standing on the back of Congo straddling Prince, and Charly Baumann organizing it so he and Axel can move their animals into the building as soon as the show is over and GGW has it all loaded on the train.
I can see what you mean though about indecision on the show. The young lady in the photo looks like she can't decide if she wants to be Jeanette Williams and work the harnessed checked up liberty act from horseback, or be Sylvia Zerbini and work them free.

Showbiz David said...

not all is lost, Wade. Mine is only one voice. When next we meet in the tea tent, more on this ongoing saga. Believe in that red hat, if you must ...

Don said...


For the record, the featured clown in this edition is Tom Dougherty. Pepe is one of the diminutive fellows in the bellhop outfits that are the minions of the ringmaster.

Don Covington

Showbiz David said...

Thanks, Don. I knew I had something wrong after reading Winn's review. Not sure who the creeply character was, the guy who started out on piano. The program magazine, more like a high gloss coloring book, is of little help. I've gotta sware off these kiddie shows!

Chase said...

Last week I saw Bellobration, which had old-school thrills like Bello and Erendira's sway pole swap, a nice wheel of death, and a killer dual human cannonball. There were some amazing acrobats as well. Three rings. Ringling's sucked a bit over the past few years, but with this show they're back.

Amy Shmamy said...

Just saw Over The Top this last Saturday, and I have a few disagreements with your review. Maybe it was just our show, but for the most part all the white horses did was run in a circle. Finally after about 2 minutes she had them spin around 2 time and brought out 6 more horses and they ran in the opposite direction. I thought it fell short. I didn't feel the chinese act was the best in the show, the night before an aerlist from this act fell and broke his wrist. They continued to do the same things over and over again. It was amusing at first, but mostly a one trick pony, (like the white minature horses). I will have to admit, I loved the goat riding the other goats. It made me giggle inside as well as the pig who unrolled Tom's carpet. Not to mention the two bellhops who had my family in a fit of laughter because they decided to mimic me in the middle of the national Anthem. I loved the story line, I felt it brought everything together, rather than just act after act with no transition. I could have done without the bubble act, and Tom was pretty much the only performer who didn't play to our side of the audience, which bothered me a little. Where we were sitting, (front row on the end) after the penguin act they didn't remove the cushion so we missed the tigers laying down, which I felt was a technical issue they could work on. The act that made my heart skip a beat was the man walking upside down. Silva, I think his name was. I don't know where you were sitting, but he was right above us, so we saw the straps where his feet went. It was that feeling, that I can't look, but I can't stop looking. I loved the show, and I thought all the animals looked happy, including the head bopping elephant. The costuming was brilliant, the way the woman's dresses turned into the elephants blankets. The last scene, Cirque esq. but beautiful none the less, created a beautiful scene with the costumes. I espcecially loved the clowns bouncing around, one dressed like a dart frog. This show, unlike the last one I saw 8 years ago wil be remembered in my mind and "Over the Top's" chorus plays over and over again in my brain.
Thanks for your insight,
P.S. There was a Napolean Dynamite look a like scooping poop, I ABOUT DIED with laughter.

Showbiz David said...

glad you liked the show, Amy, and thanks for passing along your thoughts. See how different the same show can look to two people? maybe the horses were off when you saw it. We both agree on the daredevil who walked upside down. he was an old fashioned marvel.