Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ringless Bros. in Overdrive: Zing Zang Zoom Makes Magic in the Rough ...

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey / Zing Zang Zoom
Oakland, August 13, 7:30 p.m.
$15.75 to $108.00
2 hours, 10 minutes

Ringling’s illusional Zing Zang Zoom tries hard to turn a reasonably good slate of acts into a wildly creative sight and special effects show. If only there was a little more focused artistry — and a little less overblown zing.

The Felds, who have long used the lure of pyrotechnics to seduce audiences, are back at it in a big way with this one — no match for the sleeker, decidedly more disciplined and talented Boom A Ring, currently playing at Coney Island.

Nonetheless, whatever Zing is, it keeps on giving: Costumes offer bright eye candy diversions. Exotic ensemble opener is Cirque du Soleil on steroids, leading into one of the biggest ballyhoo busts in big top history — the touted “escape” of an elephant. It’s not hard to figure out how “zingmaster” Alex Ramon made this happen.

Not exactly a take-note beginning for the young handsome magician, who has been handed prime focus as master of ceremonies and bolts through the evening like a raspy-voiced cheer leader, bordering on shrill overkill. His moderately pleasing big box illusions are interwoven through a somewhat schizophrenic program, directed by Shanda Sawyer, which is mostly another (literally) Ringless Bros. affair. Ramon’s best trick by far is making a tiger appear, and that’s a tie in to big cage act of Tabayara “Taba” Maluenda.

This show really aims to be a more splashy in-your-face production than a circus, and it’s hyperactivity can wear on your eyes and ears. That is, if you are a certified adult. Obsessively focused lighting, as usual, casts narrow illumination onto the action at hand. Not always helpful. For example, a possibly charming upside down routine high in the arena performed by Clara Ruizi and Fabio Melo Da Silva is nearly impossible to follow through distracting spot lights.

But the producing Felds, it appears painfully obvious, would rather keep some of us in the dark some of the time than shed any embarrassing light onto thousands of vacant chairs that do not spell the greatest draw on earth. At least in Oakland or San Francisco, where I have followed the show over the years, this is certainly the case.

Acts range from so-so to very good. Olate’s returning dogs are a reliable delight. The elephants in long mount formations strike a genuine chord of old authentic circus nearly lost in the scattershot setting, with odd-shaped platforms and rubber tubes that inflate into temporary rings coming and going. We are never placed anywhere. Two Russian swing troupes, Skokov and Romashaov, deliver nifty and novel maneuvers. Less accomplished though no less ambitious are the Qi Qi Har Acrobatic Troupe from China, executing leaps and somersaults between each other on two swinging planks. Blame a certain lack of Asian perfection on the use of safety wires.

Another mixed result born of the mechanic diminishes the Lopez Family high wire troupe, not profiled in the program. One of the Lopez brothers who gets things going, using a standard balancing pole, has real star power, which promises major entertainment aloft. Not to be. Despite website notes to the contrary promising "no safety lines or net," a slim payoff has a woman rigged to a mechanic doing a head stand in a three-person pyramid. And you can feel the air going out of another inflated illusion.

A double cannon, two wheels of death, and liberty horses add conventional strength to the standard ingredients.

Possibly the show’s two finest artists — a Chinese aerial duo, names not listed in the program magazine — are ill-served by ineffective showcasing; their act is difficult to fully appraise, for it is oddly split into sections and presented piecemeal between and around other less primary happenings. This is just plan weird. Worse yet, the pair are spotted near the back door. They really deserve the center space, which is unconvincingly held by a woman getting all tangled up in another hopelessly vague fabric roll around.

The one glaring deficit to Zing are eight or nine silly acrobatic house clowns who mark perhaps a new low in Ringling comedy.

Music ranges from ersatz Broadway with a strong pulse to a variety of other sounds that somehow end up all sounding the same, and not very memorable. Maybe it’s the amplification. No matter, this is a calculated program of mirrors and incidental antics (audience shilling, and I think, through a muffled sound system, I detected a slight story line?) all designed to keep the audience occupied. It conveys more than a touch of directorial insecurity, but, then again, viewed from a populist angle, Zing Zang Zoom looks like a big crowd pleaser — that is, for audiences who ask not much of circus art but prefer the quick immediate rush of fresh fireworks along with some of the old fashioned stuff and a little novelty thrown in. Call it the Feld formula. Boy, does it sell concessions. To everyone but me.

Overall Rating (out of 4 stars): 2-1/2 stars

End ringers: Attendance figures: I purposely chose to take in the show in the evening, thinking it might be better attended. I saw about the same number of people I’ve seen the last two years at 11:00 am Saturday shows. I checked with two house ushers. Usher A guessed there were closer to three than four thousand customers in the arena, which seats 19,200. Usher B more or less concurred, adding that the crowd on the previous (opening) night was larger and speculating that, because there was an Oakland Raiders game in the stadium next door, that was partly a reason for the light turnout. The audience that did turn out was really into the show, and many of them binged throughout on concessions and treats ... All Access Pre-Show: Only the second time I've taken a walk through this event. Considering there is no money changing going on, I must admit it is an agreeable feature, though I still question just another act of breaking down the fourth wall. The highlight for me was watching the elephant Asia at work on a painting! ... Why no S.F. reviews? Zing's zingmaster, Alex Ramon, is a local east bay boy who received prominent feature coverage in both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, but neither paper reviewed the circus. How odd. That ringless setting: The way it is forever being rearranged, it made me fell like I was watching a circus on a certain doomed ocean liner ... Program Magazine: For $15.00, this decreasinglgy significant item is hardly worth the money considering its sketchy historical value and the absence of a program lineup.

[all photos from the program magazine]

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