Thursday, November 11, 2010

Big Apple Circus on PBS: Paul Binder's Retirement Highlights An Evening of Sad Stories Beneath and Behind an Unspectacular Big Top

Maybe circus is not as much a family as my niece, Lisa, feels good thinking it is after having discovered, last week, the first of three installments of the PBS series, Circus. She called me this afternoon from Virginia, and we talked about the show we were both high on.

This evening, I didn't feel so high. For a show about the circus, there was an awful lot of sadness. So many little stories, both personal and professional, more troubling than triumphal. Saddest and most disappointing of all, the lack of a splashy opening night in New York with reviews, etc. Not the drama I expected. They got to NY, and on the way, the tent was full of empty seats, shockingly empty. Mime Les Feres Taquin, in a surprising fit of candor, stated "the show could be much better than it is. It is just one act after another act."

One of the juggling LaSalle Brothers spoke of the tension and conflicts with his brother, over the latter's plans to go off to medical school, and of how it felt like a kind of divorce in the making. Barry Lubin was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, although, luckily, he seemed by show's end to be out of the woods, and was happily back in makeup as Grandma. The Neves flying trap act were fired on opening day in the second stand, a radical event for any circus; Paul Binder said this was the first time they had ever terminated a major act go into the season.

We never heard a word from music director Rob Slowik, particularly odd given that the show was titled "Play On," the theme crafted around a diversity of musical styles. However, viewers would not know this, for as of this point, it still goes by the name "Change On."

Paul Binder's decision to retire was made known. We saw Binder discussing how to break the news with his long-time associate and the man who would replace him, Guillaume Dufresnoy.

At one point, three potential ringmasters were auditioned, and five BAC top guns adjourned to a trailer to compare reactions: Binder, Christen, Dufresnoy, Lubin and director Steve Smith. Lubin was the first to proffer his opinion. And here things got very interesting, inviting all sorts of between-the-lines speculation.

After the meeting let out, Steve and Michael contacted Dufresonl, asking to meet with him. The three alone readdressed the issue of discussing respective reactions to the announcer tryouts -- without Paul, without Barry.

For me, the most revealing moment of these two hours was a poignant position firmly expressed by Steve Smith both before and after the segment focusing on Binder's retirement. Not once but twice did Smith assert essentially the same thing, as if Binder's exit was almost foreordained, and here I am almost quoting him word for word: "Paul has to step back so that BAC can have a future without him. It is hard for him to let go." I wonder what he may know that we don't. I wonder what pressures may have been placed on Paul behind the scenes leading up to this pivotal moment in his life.

In fact, Big Apple Circus perhaps has grown to staid in a ritualistic preparation process. I've more than once suggested that Barry Lubin, as talented as I believe he is (a legend, no doubt) is nonetheless symptomatic of an organization that may need to break free of staid traditions and a find bold new ways to refresh and reinvent itself. To blow up a few boxes. It also finds itself suffering an ominous decline in corporate funding and box office sales.

Most missing from tonight's show was a sense of a terrific performance. A number of worthy acts got air time and impressed, none outstandingly. We were not shown any of the tops turns from start to finish.

The producers wandered out of the tent many times, producing segments that felt listless and too far off the circus angle, to spend time with Lubin in hospital exam rooms, to listen to the kids discuss their personal lives. Very funny was an early segment lending the impression that three young women wanted to be known as lesbians in order to stave off the advances of the prop crew. And Heidi, earlier an item with the bomb kid, linked up with a member of the tent crew and the two left the show for Colorado. I predict it won't work out.

The Paul Binder I saw this evening matched the image I have always had of the man -- full of conviction and passion for his work, the producer in charge and a cheerful salesman for the circus in general. He also displayed humility and even not a little ambivalence about his decision to retire. He seemed genuinely conflicted -- like the LaSalle boy ruing the immanent loss of his brother as partner. Said Binder near the end, "Am I sad? Yes."

One of the few artistic high points: Lubin rehearsing an idea he and Mark Gindick came up with, needing something to replace a number not clicking with crowds. They called it "Singing in the Rain." Absolute brilliance. Finally, I got to see it; I did not when I saw the show on Long Island, and had I kept my ticket stub, I would have sent it in for a refund. False advertising. Another department that needs a refreshing makeover is marketing and promotion.

How could they have reached new york without an opening night?

Now, that makes me sad.

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