Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Best American Circuses, 2011: Showbiz David & Others Rank them -- Only One Show Makes Everybody's List

From Showbiz David, Critical Feedback Division

No two people will ever agree on which show is “best,” and where to place the rest in order of quality. At the bottom of this post, I am pleased to include, in the order in which they were received, the top three picks of other contributors, which makes this so much more interesting.

My ranking criteria

For my money, what separates the best from the least? Surely, the strength of the acts, but that alone is hardly a guarantee for a winning program. Making the biggest difference are production values, from lighting and costume design to music, announcing, pacing and contrasting dynamics.

Some trends, good and ill

Every show offers reasons to go: All of the circuses listed here featured at least one or two — or more — notable acts, and most offered a wide variety of action.

Animal Attitudes: With the one exception of Circus Vargas, all of shows continue to offer the public entertaining animal acts. And the majority of the shows — five — still usually include wild animals in the mix. All of which evidences the public’s continuing preference for the full “traditional” program and the success of circus owners in fostering its confidence.

Ringmasteritis: A disease suffered by hack virtuosos of verbosity (aka: “ringmasters”) who can’t shut up and/or grovel to the crowd for coached applause and cheering. “How are you enjoying the show so far, everybody?!!” Four of the companies — Ringling’s Barnum 200, Cole Bros. Circus of Stars, Circus Vargas, and Carson & Barnes -- all carry verbal blowhards worthy of gag-order restraints.

The carnival in the tent: The crass integration of concession pitches throughout the program and hyper-active intermission rides and photo ops does nothing to enhance a show's artistic impression. Four of the shows listed here continue to pursue this course at their own risk.

Effective tape-recorded musical scores: Two of the companies — Cole Bros.Circus of Stars and Circus Vargas — prove that well constructed musical scores tape recorded for playback can actually be superior to small straining bands. “Live” is no good if your musicians are too few in number or can’t cut it.

The shows considered

I saw five of these circuses in 2011. I am factoring in two others: I caught Kelly Miller in 2010 (quite similar to the 2011 edition), and UniverSoul in 2005. I believe my rankings reflect their general quality. I am including only medium to large sized shows that present fixed programs during a regular touring season lasting many months. Thus, for example, shows like Circus Osario or Circus Bella would not make my list.

The Showbiz David 2011 Picks

1. Big Apple Circus (Dance On!) A nearly perfect performance. Superlative production values, not overly wrought, excellent acts of noteworthy innovation. Excellent music and clowning, a joyful reach. New Artistic Director Guillaume Dufresnoy is good news — the perfect figure to extend the Binder-Christensen legacy.

What to wish for: More substance in the air. If there is to be a ringmaster, let him/her speak a few words.

2. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey For all that’s been said, the Felds continue to scout some of the best acts in the world, and they experiment with compelling new modes of presentation, even if they can’t resist overplaying their bag of flashy visual tricks. The acts may vary from first rate to forgettable, the music from brilliant to pedestrian, but their costumes and stage pictures are atmospherically outstanding, and they know how to build to a rousing climax.

What to wish for: A more consistently high grade performance, less heavy-handed showmanship. At Coney Island over two summers in a single ring, where they placed talent over fireworks, they produced their best two editions in years.

3. Kelly Miller Circus A promising work in progress from John Ringling North II, who has proved his Ringling credentials revealing a conservative deference to traditional circus while modestly testing the creative waters.

What to wish for: A more frequent turnover in performing personnel. This may be the most critical issue facing North, who at some point will have to let go of favored performers, that is, if he does not wish to alienate his positive relationship with the pubic. He needs a little stronger lineup. And, if he wishes to go the distance as a first-rate showman, he will have to shake off those old show-disrupting Hugo merchandising habits — a direct smear on the House of Ringling. This show has a nice warm feel and a friendly flow, and it covers the solid basics with good music and announcing.. In fact, the two circuses I most looking forward to seeing again are this and Big Apple.

4. UniverSoul Circus A difficult call, because I’ve not seen the show since 2005, but given website information on the current edition, it likely deserves this or a higher slot in my rankings. The funky UniverSoul Circus offers a strong muscular mix, if awkwardly merged, of traditional circus acts (some imported), Afro-centric hip hop routines, wild animals, a quirky character clown named Onion Head, and the oddly incongruous end-of-the-show morality skits.

What to wish for: a smoother integrated program minus the preachy melodramas that can drive customers to an early exit. Truly, these veiled sex, drugs and misogynistic enactments give breathtaking new meaning to the term “Sunday school show.”

5. Circus Vargas A show of moderately engaging action that varies from first rate to acceptably standard. It could and should be so much better, if only the owners would step back, let go and hand over the direction to a strong outside party. Along with evidence of smart staging in precious few spots, there is a lingering air of audience pandering desperation throughout the overly-hyped performance, including the exit path that patrons must take past performers waiting out in the connection to be flattered, smiled at, asked for autographs.

What to wish for: Better comedy, a better presentation. And, irony of ironies, a flying act that actually flies.

6. Cole Bros. Circus of Stars A far cry from the old Beatty-Cole three-ring show (presented in three rings) when the music was live, the clowning strong, the mid-level acts of even merit professionally paced. Cole’s taped musical score, as noted above, is generally excellent. Its lineup is wildly uneven, from charming animal and aerial ballet effects to pedestrian thrill turns rehashed year after year. The rectangular arena-shaped setting gives the performers a semi- stranded look. The excessive announcements grow quickly grating. And the clumsy staging (including a gauche fork lift truck for major prop changes) casts a dreary impression.

What to wish for: This show needs a total rethinking of the performance format. Messrs Pugh and Bale need to focus less on tent-show logistics, more on the performance itself.

7. Carson & Barnes It’s obvious the Byrds, to their credit, are genuinely trying to upgrade the show, what with a few world class acts and a rather expansive spread of action, some of it unfortunately bordering on rank amateurism. Most of their best moves forward are sabotaged by stale production elements they seem unable to retire (a bombastic ringmaster entirely out of place, for example), and the usual crass inclusion of concession pitches throughout the show.

What to wish for: Gutting the intermission, hiring a clown who presents new routines each year, and hiring a new, less talky, less overbearing ringmaster, would work wonders for the lineup. When they ran the show straight through without an intermission, Carson & Barnes now and then produced some of America's most exciting performances. They can easily do it again, but they must make drastic structural changes.

How Others Judge Them

And now, to the rankings of my guest-volunteer judges. After having set my own rankings in stone, I invited others to send in their top 3 favorites. The reason I confined the number to 3 was to make the task as easy as possible. A few of shows listed here do not appear on my rankings; since I have not seen any of them, I was in no position to consider including them on my o1n list.

From Harry Kingston

Says Harry, " I am always in favor of tent shows right or wrong"

1. Cole Bros. Circus of Stars

2. Kelly Miller Circus

3. Carson and Barnes Circus.

From Don Covington

1. Big Apple Circus

2. Kelly Miller Circus

3. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey

From Ron Finch, Newark Valley, NY

1. Kelly Miller Circus

2. Billy Martin's Cole All Star Circus

3. Cole Bros. Circus of Stars

From Becky Ostroff

1. Cirque Polynesian

2. Kelly Miller Circus

3. James Cristy Cole Circus

From Charles Hanson

1. Carson & Barnes Circus

2. Kelly Miller Circus

3. Cole Bros. Circus of Stars

Kelly Miller's Rare Popularity

For the fun of it, pooling all the scores -- mine and my five guest judges -- I assigned three points to any show getting a first place ranking, two points for a second, one point for a third. Here is what we get:

1. Kelly Miller Circus (12 points)

2. Big Apple Circus (6 points)

3. Cole Bros Circus of Stars (5 points)

The only show to make everybody's top three list, what is it about Kelly Miller? I believe it has something to do with the intangibles of spirit. Here is what Becky Ostroff said about Kelly Miller in her e-mail to me:

"I felt this gem of a delight flowed and kept my attention and was over before I knew it. What was not to love! All the elements of a classic show, animals, comedy, acrobatic, aerial, clowning and music."

Thanks to all of you, my guest judges!

Original posted 10.19.11


Anonymous said...

Odd that Carson/Barnes appeared on anyone's list. Makes me think that being shmoozed by the owners must be of more importance to fans than quality. Oh, well I guess each person has their own criteria, though ushering loyal fans to the good seats doesn't mean much to the other patrons.

Anonymous said...

mantrapTo Anonymous: I saw Carson-Barnes Circus last year in Chamblee, Ga five shows total. I had good seats and I paid full admission for each performance I attended.The entire Byrd family does treat circus fans with respect. No one ushered me to any free seats. Carson Barnes is pure circus and I find it odd being left off of anyone's list. The shows I saw were quality all the way including a walk around Spec and seldom seen aerial ballet. Carson Barnes circus is superior in every way compared to the watered down versions of some larger shows. When Carson Barnes fails to excite me with their circus....then I will no longer be a circus fan. Carson Barnes is one of the last of PURE CIRCUS and I feel badly for anyone who does not recognize that fact. Charles Hanson

Harry Kingston said...

What's so odd about Carson and Barnes appearing on a list.
They have had there ups and downs but it has always been a real circus with lots of everything.
More animals, more rings and one heck on a long big top.
There never was a real star but many very good acts through the years.
And at least I sign my name to what I make a comment on, good or bad and you DID NOT.
Harry in Texas

Showbiz David said...

I think this makes it more interesting, to share the views of others, which is why I appreciated the input of those who chose to participate. I have my opinions, and they, theirs. What a dull world it would be if we all agreed.

Most new shows on Broadway, most new movies, pop music CDs, etc. more often than not generate a wide range of opinions. The unanimous raves or pans are the exception. The "gem" on somebody's "Best of the Year" list may be the "dog" on another person's "Worst of the Year" list.

What was most revealing here was how Kelly Miller managed to be the only show to make everybody’s list. What surprised me was how ignored Ringling-Barnum was.

Harry gives us a valid clue to his thinking: He flat-out likes tent shows, and I can relate to that.

J Reed said...

I saw Carson and Barnes in Nashville last year. It is probably about the 8th time I have seen it over 40 years. I found the costumes better than ever, along with some real good acts. Yes, I miss the days of 20 plus elephants, but that's the world we live in. I thought it was much better than the blue jeans costumes on Zing, Zang Zoom this past winter. SHowbiz Dave criticizes Carson and Barnes for the peanut pitch, etc, but Ringling's sell crap the whole show. Everything about Carson and Barnes was better than the Ringling Show. In fact I haven't seen a great Ringling show since Gunther died. Thank you to the Byrds for preserving a good old fashioned circus. J Reed, Paducah Ky

Harry Kingston said...

Mr. Reed,
I have seen Carson and Barnes every year since 1970 when I joined the CFA as they always play Texas. This year in Gilmer, Texas they gave 2 sell out shows and my wife helped sell tickets and she sold $4000 out front for them.
Oh Man yes the 20 plus elephants and huge tent that looked a mile long with 8 center poles. And Mr. Circus was there the one and only D. R. Miller who gave you a real circus.
And the costumes now WOW and they did them all in winter quarters and on the road.
Heard the show in Ft Worth was the best ever and the shrine there loved it.
My wife had to have peanuts on Ringling and I trecked to get her some and $5 damn dollars and I had to have 2 programs at $15 each just nuts.
And same here on going to Ringling as the big units are in Houston with tons of traffic and we get the Gold here in town and one year in jeans.
Mr. Reed and to quote you, yes a great big THANK YOU to the Byrds and there daughters and husbands for busting there butts every day to give us a real old time circus rain or shine. All of them are with it and for it.
The last of an era and always under the big top and bless them all.
Harry in Texas

Anonymous said...

Carson and Barnes, Kelly Miller boils down to nothing but cheering for the little guy, slough the big guy Ringling. There is not much left any more, and we kinda get an idea of why, don't we...... To bad there are not more paying customers who like a bit of dirt, mud and grime for there entertainment dollar.

Anonymous said...

putodawJ Reed : Thanks for your comments on Carson Barnes and Ringling. You nailed it......Right on the money. Charles Hanson

Brandon Sterk said...

I'm a big circus fan and have recently seen Carson and Barnes (like 2 years ago) while I love the "olde time" feel I just can't see how anyone could compare RBBB to any of these circuses. Even with the major changes to their show over the years Ringling is still far and away the best. Who else still tours 10 elephants, tigers, horses, ect (even at 1/2 the size they used to carry it's still like double anyone else!). And honestly as long you stay away from their overpriced souvineers and their "VIP" seats its pretty affordable with a lot of weeknight shows going for under $15 a seat. Additionally for the last few years in Chicsgo Ringling has been offering free parking for all shows (this is a huge money saver in a city like Chicago). Finally for anyone with kids Ringling is a sensory delight--which is needed to keep pace with what kids are now used to. I don't think i've ever seen a Ringling show done on the. Cheap. At Carson and Barnes it just looked dirty, even the. Motorcycle high wore act didn't work because the guy couldn't get the bike started..sorry that would never happen at Ringling.
It's like hating the Patriots for always being so good, sure you can root for the Cleveland Browns, but everyone knows the Patriots are the best..."

Anonymous said...

I don't judge the Ringling SHow on their overpriced souvineers, and high priced floss and snow, and parking which the show does not control. (The parking). The simple fact is that performance wise ....Ringling is no longer The Greatest Show on Earth (My opinion)The entire performance is a watered down version of what it once was...including the costumes and props. Yes, I realize it is a different time and that cost factors have to be considered. Even with the ten or so elephants, tigers, and etc. it is gut wrenching to try and watch a performance of Ringling. Everything has been cut and downsized to the bare bone. I attended the Ringling Show several times each time they came to town. Now, I don't go at all....The changes are too much for me....I realize that many disagree with me. The last Ringling SHow I attended...I kept looking at my watch....when will this be over? I knew that was my last Ringling SHow. All of the hoop la is gone from the Ringling Show....Someone worked very hard to achieve this goal and they did a mighty fine job.The performance at Carson Barnes is far superior to what I last saw at Ringling. The motorcycle not starting on Carson Barnes that was mentioned in previous post ( That is simply called "Circus Business". And yes, it could have happened on The Ringling Show. I was at a Ringling Performance many years ago when a featured aerialist refused to perform because she did not like the way her rigging was hung. I am not blaming her at all....Her life was at stake. Just making a point that things of this nature can happen even on Ringling. When I want to see Ringling Show....I simply pull out the video of The Greatest SHow On Earth. Charles Hanson

Harry Kingston said...

When it comes to circuses to me and my opinion I favor the tent shows as that is the real circus.
Cole does not come close to Texas anymore and to go see it, it is a very long drive and that costs lots of $$$$$$$$$ now.
We get Kelly miller and Carson and Barnes we can go see easly.
Both shows put on a very good performance.
When Carson and Barnes plays Ft Worth, Barbara Byrd goes all out and it is very superior and the shrine sponsor wants them back every year.
They have new costumes and many elephants all what you expect.
Sure tent shows will have some dirt and when they hit a muddy lot no telling what ot looks like BUT tha tis out door show business and you make teh best out of it.
Being a die hard circus fan I always have a camera and take pictures and Ringling does not like pictures and I have never been refused on a tent show.
I had permission from the Gold unit 6 months ahead and had trouble with the building that with my tax dollars paid for it.
The Ringling big units play Houston and could ahve gotten free tickets but refused on account of the drive and traffic.
Like Mr. Hanson said it is watered down to me also my opinion.
And the Gold went way out one year and had blue jeans.
It is not what it used to be as the nuts are out of sight.
Got to see Lewis and clark recently and Bob Childress is very fan friendly and he had the best performance yet and packed them in the town i saw.
Kelly Miller as Dave said has a new tent that is larger and I bet
John Ringling North II and Jim Royal will ahve some great surprises for us in 2012.
Be on the look out for Dick Gardens new tent show as there performances I have seen from him
always has been good.
another fan friendly owner.
Hope we all have a great 2012 circus season.
Harry in Texas