Thursday, June 07, 2012

Big Apple Circus "Dream Big" is Half a Yawner; Soaring Stars, Crooning Rodent Leave Limp Story Threads in the Dust

Circus Review: Big Apple Circus - Dream Big
Queens, NY, May 26, 12:30 PM

Never under the big top is the disconnect between circus and theatre more apparent than when world class performers share the sawdust with trivial story telling, even more problematical when the storyline is aimed at moppets. This year’s Big Apple bash begins in the spirit of a kindergarten style orientation for children on how, if only they dream big — surprise! — their big dreams of course will all come true.

Call this curiously ill-assembled, aimlessly paced opus a learning experience. There is sufficient evidence on display here to argue that prolonged interactive diversions risk stealing the pulse out from under a potentially gripping campaign. Given the rather small number of artists on the bill, it is easy to imagine artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy and colleagues pushing for an extended scenario to fill up two hours.

Big Apple Circus commences in a manner reminiscent of a Feld Broadway-ized opening. Cheerfully embracing head mistress of ceremonies Jenna Robinson, (think Dame Edna lite), introduces a huge Dream Big machine, an imposing prop that will not be put to much use. She and comic co-hort Andrey Mantchev brightly create the impression of comedy in the making, some of it funny, and help advance a weak set of narrative threads. The story angle, unfortunately, never really coheres into a solid theatrical force, but is confined mostly to talky talky segments and prankish excursions into the audience that can feel semi-stranded between the acts proper. The acts proper, you see, represent towering achievements. The narrative interludes that faintly bridge those acts do not.

Customers get plenty of chances to participate. And if you’re really lucky, you can share the spotlight with Grandma in a rendition of “Unforgettable,” song inserted to salute the retiring Barry Lubin. Grandma is something of a local icon to generations of New Yorkers. Her clever antics, pushing herself into the stream of action, are quintessential Grandma, some of them quite amusing, others warmly charming. Wherever Lubin goes next, the character he has created is destined to live on in the annals of legendary clowning.

On the plus side, BAC’s continued resolve to try new forms is a good and healthy sign.

First to shove the show into high gear and blow away all the frivol are the adventurous Shangdong Acrobats from China , who deliver by far the most deftly constructed group jump-roping exhibition I have ever witnessed; in fact, one of the best circus acts, period, that I have ever witnessed. Trick by trick, each growing more complex than the last, advance by advance to a powerhouse payoff, they are simply a marvel to watch .

Oddly, Shangdong’s second offering, an ambitious risley effort that arrives directly before intermission, is marred by sloppy connections and landings, same as what I observed on a YouTube video of the troupe when I first heard that BAC had signed them. The Chinese these days are not nearly as flawlessly consistent as once they once were, mainly, I believe, because they are pushing themselves to break free of staid old tricks and reinvent a fresh repertoire, a prime reason why they excel, if not dominate, international circus festivals.

Other stellar standout in a lean lineup include juggler Dimitry Chernov, contortionist Melanie Chy — for whom, a rarity in this show, the music lends just the right atmospheric support; and comedy illusionists Scott and Muriel, who make a strong impact initially, but proceed to wear out their welcome mat by over-working the audience for silly laughs. Indeed, when they return in the second half, you might not feel so eager for more (I sensed a few weary sighs from the crowd), and yet they bring off one of the most astounding big box escape acts that I have ever witnessed. Houdini would likely pay attention.

An absolute joy of the sort we live for around the rings is an oddball collection of mixed animals presented by the extraordinarily gifted Jenny Vidbel. She, who last year had goats riding horses, this time around has a dog, a pig, an African porcupine, and a Capybara named "Bob," the world's largest rodent, each in turn completing its specific little task precisely well and to the point. What in other hands might have been blown up and bellowed out verbally for protracted hoopla is here unfolded in brisk order. Ingeniously staged. Not a wasted moment. I’d say Monte Carlo Gold for the victorious Vidbel and her whimsically offbeat barnyard.

Vidbel’s earlier stint with a trio of Arabian horses is mostly ho-hum — the emphasis seeming to be on a lovely touchy-feeling (read, humane) outing with the animals in order to impress you-know-who rather than on setting the sawdust awhirl.

The show reaches for the heights at the end, and makes it — all the way. Bring on the generously talented Flying Cortes. They’ve got novel twists and turns, multiple traps, dashingly confident 10-year-old Ysabella Wallenda-Cortes, who bonds well with the kids, and a heroic figure in the form of Alexander Cortes. He brings a true thrill to the air, even more thrilling because, after missing the triple, he climbed back up the rope ladder, as I remember flyers in years gone by doing, tried again and ... made it! Another factor that enhances Robinson’s showmanship is the atypically husky physique for a flyer which he bears, which would seem to make hand-to-hand contact a more difficult venture. In one breathtaking connection, flyer to catcher, Big Apple wrapped up before a three-quarter plus house on a high and glorious note. So ...

Despite a rather harshly overactive, rather remote original score composed by Mathias Ruegg that left me wanting for less, and despite the meandering narrative shortcomings, there can be no denying the creative power of what is here. At intermission, I could not see myself giving this show any more than two-and-a-half stars. After intermission, more moments of sheer brilliance and a stronger second half raised my pulse-o-meter.

Overall rating (out of four stars tops) 3 stars

[Big Apple Circus photos by Bertrand Guay]

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