Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Before Shrinking Crowds, Carson & Barnes Sparkles, then Glimmers Like a Fading Universe
Circus Review: Carson & Barnes
Cow Palace upper parking lot
San Francisco, September 12, 4:30 p.m.
Seats: $27.00 top
Rides: $6.00 top (elephant)
The wonder of Carson & Barnes Circus is that at its best, it is as good as Ringling once was. If only its best could last beyond the first four or five compelling displays. After that, sadly, a very promising show slides downward into a paceless hodgepodge — weaker and fewer acts, disruptive concession activities and woefully amateurish clowning.
A thrilling non-stop stream of early action (worth 3-1/2 stars) had the audience ooing and ahhing with shared delight — from festive opening splash “Be A Clown!” through three-ring displays of charming dogs and ponies, inventive contortionists and aerialists, and even a hula hoop exhibition of arresting variety and climactic punch that had me on its side. Without a program magazine for sale, these talented performers will remain nameless. Nor are the shrill announcements of an overbearing ringmaster through a muddled sound system of much help.
Trouble enters the tent with the old Peterson Peanut pitch, which looked nothing short of desperate. What price a few bucks of extra revenue? And when the carnival came to town at intermission time, ironically, the pony and elephant rides and the painted clown faces for sale would be the last time when all three rings were simultaneously in motion.
I studied the blank questioning look on the face of a man in a box seat gazing at the pony ride, and I wondered if he was thinking what I was. After intermission, he and his kids did not return (at least not to their original seats), nor did nearly half of those, mostly adults, who had occupied the two rows of VIP chairs. In the preferred seating section where I sat, there was but me and maybe a couple dozen other souls. In the entire tent, two- to three-hundred gratefully engaged customers. So lonely. So sad. In fact, the changing scene from first to second half epitomized what is happening to our circuses these bleak days: less people returned, and the performance itself went from three rings of action down to one. Even in the morning during set up (what a joy it was to watch these sunny Mexicans going about their work, so intricately organized), I did not spot a single soul who might have been another circus fan. Are they, too, disappearing?
To be fair, Carson and Barnes had more than those first five or six displays to offer the public: a nicely staged aerial ballet; wining Wheel of Destiny routine; and a lovable trio of nimble footed-pachyderms working the center ring in a sprightly fashion. Four stars to these show-stealing pros! There is also a colorful patriotic spec that likely plays better in red states. It only lacks a stronger payoff. Costumes here and elsewhere are usually excellent (C&B have raised their own standards), as is the lighting. Taped music is generally appropriate.
After the show, I overheard kids laughing and giggling, one of them telling his dad, “That was fun! Let’s go back!” How should such a remark impact on a “review”? My best guess is that, to survive, circuses must impress adults too. Showmanship makes a critical difference.
This troupe did its level best to entertain us in a worn out format that needs drastic rethinking. The animals on display looked well tended to, healthy and friendly. To be clear, I do not advocate eliminating the midway itself, which is the proper place for what should never desecrate a sawdust ring. For any struggling circus owner out there seeking answers, here is a hopefully helpful observation: When I have gone to Big Apple Circus or UniverSoul Circus or Cirque du Soleil, I did not see the rings ever cluttered with carnivals during intermission, or performances stopped for commercials. And at those circuses, at least on the few times that I’ve attended, the seats were nearly full.
Carson and Barnes has always been a gamble. Sometimes the late Dory Miller delivered very well. This time around — or was I dreaming? – it was pure heaven for fifteen or 20 minutes under the big top as the show moved briskly forward with the assurance, pacing, and high spirits of yesteryears’s greatest three ringers. If only Barbara and Gary Byrd could teach themselves how to hold that bright and shining vision all the way through straight right to the end. Is that too much to ask?
Overall rating: * *
[Due soon: Unseen Stars of the Big Top: Photos of set up]