From a far more promising past, this review was first posted on June 24, 2009
Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Boom A Ring!Brooklyn, New York, June 18.
Tickets: $10 to $65 – Now through September 7
What a difference a tent makes. And a live band. And the right acts. And the right direction. And the absence of so many things that never should have been there. What a giant difference, indeed. Somehow, Ringling in the mode of simple looks better than it has in years.
In fact, one ring under a tent may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to circus chief Kenneth Feld.
One ring is apparently forcing (or inspiring) him to narrow his focus down to the essentials, down to a taut deference to the acts at hand, and the acts at hand in Boom a Ring! merit the sleek, no-nonsense format they have been given. Mr. Feld has devised a program of remarkable depth, diversity and luster – a program free of the extraneous production gimmicks and frills that have grown oppressive over the years.
Gone, at last, are so many tired old artifacts of ritual: that creaky rolling platform from which the ringmaster boomed “Children of all ages!”; kiddies pulled out of the audience onto rumbling floats, waving at us during pedestrian specs; cutesy video screen irritants, opening parades as thinly veiled promos for the circus, half-baked "story" lines, audience participation ad nauseum, and, well — I will politely refrain from naming everything. You fill in the blanks. Miracle of miracles, they are all GONE.
Seen opening night in its Coney Island premiere, Ringling’s Gold Unit proved to be a fine-tuned circus machine, endowed with a host of top-drawer talents full of inventive sparkle, wisely directed to move forward and to keep moving forward. This is the most professionally produced circus I have seen in years, and what a treat that alone is. Thrillingly to the point, skillfully paced, with crisp clean transitions, and an outstanding musical score that hits the mark. Opening and closing ensemble splashes are picture perfect.
The live music is produced by but six or seven musicians. The band has been liberated out from under that morose cage-like covering, out where it can be seen. These young players prove once more that nothing can replace a living breathing source of music at the circus.
Acts? At least five of them are tops in their respective fields, and one of the performers, if he does not already hold Monte Carlo Gold, should. The big contributors include a captivating juggling threesome, unnamed in the program or on the website (the Safargalins), who work around and over a table; Diana Vedyashkina’s absolutely delightful little Daschund Dogs (a natural tie-in for Nathan’s up the street); dancing elephants who can even shake their booties; the exhilarating Negrey Troupe of ground acrobatics; and a comedy cyclist, woven through the performance, who gives the program tremendous sophistication.
His name is Justine Case, a character from Australia who courts a French accent and a need to vent his amusingly messed up life in the mode of a stand-up comic. Case is, indeed, about the greatest circus comedian-performer I’ve ever seen. He enters on a bike with suitcase in hand, immediately grabbing our attention. And he works wonders on a wild variety of wheeled configurations while monologuing on. “Maybe the French can help the Americans a little,” he quips early in the party, wryly referencing the overpowering reach of that Montreal monster. Case’s quirky humor is adult without being inappropriate for the younger set. I say to Monte Carlo: Just send this genius the Gold, no appearances necessary.
Has Feld erred in any way? To be sure, there are arguable missteps that fall short of the overall excellence in motion, weak segments that might prevent Boom A Ring! from reaching its full potential as a hot word-of-mouth must see. Most critically, opening night went on without the high wire services of Los Scalos. This turn, still featured in a video teaser on the Ringling website, looks amply exciting, just the sort of an episode to deliver a degree of air power to match all of the terrific clowning, acrobats, and animal antics on the ground. And this show needs more in the air.
Liina Aunola, who cuts a recklessly expressive figure, makes the biggest impression aloft on a cloud swing, if only she were not tethered to lifelines. Many of our so-called “aerialists” today don’t even try to hide their marionette strings, in full view snapping on the wires as if to be getting ready to go to work and clock in. What a shame. “What are those wires for,” I heard somebody whispering behind me, as is always the case. Still, Aunova’s tempestuous persona, even with her pretending, reminded me of the older bolder era when sawdust divas made perilous poetry swinging high and wide – and free.
A belabored perch act by Valentin Dinov and Borislava Vaneva involving one of them peddling a small bike up and down in a half-moon shaped track was so anchored to wires as to make it pointless. And one might ask if the tediously drawn out crossbow exploits of Martti Peltonen are worth a couple of audience pleasing payoffs.
More questionable is another aerialist, the curvaceous Vicenta Pages, who follows her perky stint directing a gorgeous class of white tigers with a commute skyward for an arduous work out on the roman rings. For my eyes, this more ethereal type of act is better suited to lighter wings.
Boom a Ring! also offers the wheel of death as well as three motor bikes whirling inside a cage while a woman stands perfectly still in the middle of it all. Another rich discovery are the gifted comedy duo of Stanislav Knyazkov and Vasily Trifonov, who add more fresh seasoning to the comedy mix. And the show soars down the finish line with a fabulous exhibition of ground tumbling by the Negrey Troupe. What a sendoff! Then comes a quick and concise last splash by the company, as perfectly precise and sleek as, overall, the show itself. Director Philip William McKinley (or Mr. Feld directing Mr. McKinely – whomever) deserves high marks for merging the elements with taste, brevity, and buoyancy.
Will Boom-a-Ring! turn the corner on Coney, helping to revive an aging seaside park while making a strong mark of its own at the ticket windows? I’d say they have an uphill battle on their hands. Other then Cirque du Soleil, American shows have rarely if ever done well across extended engagements, and I’m not sure that all the vital signs are in place here to win over healthy houses from a very fickle iPublic.
Nonetheless, Kenneth Feld may find the inspiration he needs to forge ahead in the same robust direction, with a resolve that I am convinced he never felt while straddled to his short-lived artsy, Cirque du Soleil-envious Barnum's Kaleidoscape. Here he is on the populist ground that he is at his best working. So, indeed, he may hatch a brilliant new concept for tented Ringling tours. And how ironic it would be were the Feld family, who falsely claim to have “saved” Ringling by moving it from the tents to arenas in 1957, compelled to move it back from whence it came.
How long has it been since we have witnessed such top-flight showmanship under canvas? In a single ring, the Big Show struck a powerful note of authortiy, looking, acting, and feeling whole again. And the word “greatest” seemed more fitting than it has in too many seasons. Better still, the Felds are offering the customer a decent chair at Boom A Ring! for as little as ten dollars. Now that must count as the best damn live entertainment bargain on the planet.
The Ringling brothers should be smiling up on the big lot. It’s a circus through and through.
Welcome back, Big Bertha.
Overall rating (out of 4 stars max) * * * ½
[photos, from top: Ensemble number; Stanislav Knyazkov; Justin Case; Liina Aunola; the Negrey Troupe -- all photos from Boom A Ring program magazine]