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