Saturday, June 13, 2009
John Ringling North II Three Years Later -- Might the Party Soon Be Over?
Showbiz David Speculates
Nobody that I know of has put out more positive prose heralding the return of the House of Ringling to the big top than myself. Three years later, I am looking at things a little differently.
Now, I must warn you in advance, this is NOT a review. These are only impressions of the current show gleaned from blogs, You Tube clips, photos, e-mails, and a close look at the actual lineup of acts supplied to me by show manager James Royal. I have learned that not until you actually watch a performance from start to finish can you really know what to think of it.
I also know how long it took Cliff Vargas to achieve near-greatness for a few fleeting seasons in the mid 1980s. It took him about 10 years. Perhaps Mr. North is in his early Vargas years, in which case, incredible patience is in order. Jim Royal e-mailed me that they did not expect to become the Ringling circus of the early 1950s overnight. So maybe they have some promising dreams up their sleeves.
But North II may not have ten years to make a mark while the unique envelope he holds is open. When the nephew of John Ringling North entered the circus world in 2006 by virtue of purchasing the Kelly -Miller title, the most valuable asset he brought with him was his name: Ringling. Still a magic word to many Americans. And he was shrewd enough, working with evidently savvy legal counsel, to take on a lawsuit by the Felds and at least end up with the right to post his name in certain places, altering “produced by” with “proprietor.” This impressed me.
Is he linking that magic name with a performance that compliments it? Indeed, one that lives up to it? Very doubtful. My impressions of this year's edition being mediocre, at best, are gleaned from the following:
1. The “vaulting” act as promised did not materialize. Royal tells me it was dropped "due to time restraints." Why drop so potentially exciting a number? Why not drop the hula hoops? Can anybody out there tell me that an audience would not be wildly more responsive to vaulting than to hoops???????????????????
2. The family riding act as promised sounds from all accounts like an earnest work in progress, with performers coming and going.
3. The flying trapeze skips some dates over asphalt. This I learned from reading Steve Copeland’s blog. Royal explained in an e-mail to me earlier in the season that this happens only when a contract prohibits the driving of stakes into cement.
4. The flying trapeze “triple” by Renato Fernandes is only an announcement gimmick, as I suspected when I saw it attempted on Carson & Barnes last year. Royal confirmed this by writing to me that Renato "is extremely close to catching the tripe, but has not as yet."
5. The inclusion of low-end generic acts., motor bike up inclined wire, hula hoops.
6. A troubling turnover in performance personnel. Early in the season, the Fusco brothers, jugglers highly regarded, were booked for a few weeks pending the arrival of others from Mexico. And the "Kelly Miller Festival circus" that fans see in Milwaukee in July will be a completely different show, only an hour long (I assume this means they will miss watching the great pony rides) while the regular "touring unit" makes dates on the east coast. We can only wonder what sort of a show North II will mount. I find this very strange. It raises many questions.
7. The inclusion of peanut pitches and coloring book sales by the clowns. By any measure, sub-Ringling standards.
8 The carnie aspect, pony rides during intermission, etc. Again, sub-Ringling all the way.
9. You Tube Revelations: Except for the wonderfully accomplished three-tiger hind leg walks in Casey McCoy's act, the You Tube footage in which I discovered this also included brief portions of a few of the other acts in the show that left me, sorry to report, distinctly unimpressed.
10. A misleading website. At last, they have updated it (a marked improvement in the right direction), but the baffling incompleteness does not flatter the show. Half a program is listed, and is highly misleading. What about the other half? There have been photos of acts or names (like juggler Brett Michael) that no longer appear. JRN II strikes me as very weak in the most critical area -- the advance promotion.
Sorry, but altogether these items do not add up, in my speculative opinion, to a memorable circus experience. This sort of a show might work fine for the niche public it serves down the road. Claims Royal, predictably, it is "going over well with our audiences and we are getting excellent feedback from our local sponsors." What else would a good circus man say? But North II risks losing the luster and good will of his name power if he continues offering pedestrian fare.
Of course I could be dead wrong. It is possible on the other hand, that altogether these modest elements jell into a delight. I know that Casey McCoy and the clowns Copeland and Combs, from video clips I have seen, both offer high quality acts, which is a credit to Mr. North. But the image of them, early season, peddling coloring books makes me want to cry.
Is this what a real Ringling stands for? I'm already waiting for next year. I'm waiting to see how far Mr. North might push himself into a more artistically significant direction -- if he can. And I'm not holding my breath. More and more, I'm wondering if the spectacle of a tent full of cell phonies jabbering away while the show was on, as complained about by Steve Copeland, is not a more telling portrait of an under performing circus. Methinks that a lot more of the "Ringling magic" proprietor North promised to insert into the performance when he took over might be woefully over due. If John Ringling North II is really serious, he needs to complete the triple.
[photos, from above: John Ringling North II and James Royal; juggler Raul Oliveras; Ryan Combs and Steve Copeland]