Clown for a New Day

Clown for a New Day
Dagwood might make it in today's emasculated circus

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Two Sides of John Ringling North II: One Fosters Originality, the Other Follows a Tired Hugo Script

John Ringling North II

Jim Royal recently sent me a copy of the DVD of their current edition, much appreciated, more as a research tool. I do not intend to “review” the show. That would be inappropriate given the gesture, and because I think you need to see a circus live in order to feel its full impact.

There are, however, two interesting works in progress that bear meritorious attention. The creative side of JRN II, and the creative reach of clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs; interesting how their fates are linked, at least for the time being, by a CFA tent being named after them together.

The face of JRN that I will not linger on, for I have in detail critiqued it several times before on this blog, is the Hugo syndrome to which he has, it would appear, increasingly subscribed: Pitching the audience and breaking up the show for concessions.

The other face, the one that genuinely impresses and intrigues me, I could have never predicted: the rather original, perhaps unprecedented shape that North’s so-called “production number,” directly preceding intermission, has taken. And in this, I take heart. The 2012 production marks an advance, although it also follows, in concept, the one I saw in 2010. And although the materials (talent) range from meager-pedestrian to noteworthy, it’s in the execution (musical scoring and flow of action) where North and his staff make a memorable mark.

I must stress concept. Keep in mind, I am watching a DVD. This year’s Pirate theme offering, on the whole, achieves a beguiling sense of shifting contrasts — the individual actions merging almost seamlessly. So effectively is this esthetic carried through to the final frame, that the North Starlets (three gals on webs) achieve a more surreal effect over the audience than otherwise might have been possible. Actually, they perform a series of fairy rudimentary web tricks. Also, a skeleton chase by Copeland and Combs is funnier given the context. Another word to keep in mind.

The flow of action casts a choreographed imprint not unlike a sequence out of an MGM movie musical. I’ve never quite seen anything exactly like this sort of a number in a circus. That the acts are unannounced is one big reason for the air of something different.

The pirate production’s obvious high point are the "Puppies of Penzance," a winning dog act presided over with charm and grace by Carolyn Rice. The mutts enter aboard a little sailing ship, Ye Old Salty Dog, and they fill the ring with joyful energy and ample dexterity. They practically bubble. The act in whirl-dirly motion represents a triumph in staging, bearing shades of something the Russians might have done with such a turn.

The other Kelly Miller component meriting note: Clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs bring an infectious zeal in their obvious desire to please – if only they could learn that there are other ways to get laughs than by endlessly whacking each other. My favorite bit was a laundry gag, with a fairly good payoff, and I liked some of their pre-show antics in the audience. Another item, Angry Clowns, felt still born -- and ground to a fizzle. Ringmaster John Moss, who serves perfectly as a straight man, could have been made greater use of. When Steve and Ryan return as surfers, more of the same only begs the question, what makes them think they must stick almost relentlessly to slapstick?


Their creativity is a delight, as evidenced above in "Surfboard Slapstick." But they seem too often insecurely preoccupied with a Three Stooge's campaign. On the soundtrack, you'll hear kiddies in the audience laugh; a good clown, I propose, must reach adults as well. At the end of Angry Clowns, I heard a guy booing

An earlier gag has them trying to deliver a huge cartoon to the ringmaster. It's fun too watch because, considering the size of the carton, it promises a big visual payoff, not to be. They go for sound effects -- glass splintering apart inside -- they rely heavily on sound effects. I was hoping for some kind of an explosion– something very visual.

In all fairness, lest we collectively rue bygone "greats" like Lou Jacobs, I remember his classic little car routine producing one huge laugh -- the spray of water out of the top of his head; I also remember wishing the routine had more items as funny as that one gag.

All of the above having been said, there is no reason, based on this DVD, to believe that John Ringling North II will significantly depart the Hugo script. Which is a pity, given his stated desire to produce “the best circus in America,” For that, he will need both resolve and perhaps the resources ($$$) he does not have. That's sad, because I have a hunch he possesses the instincts of a more creative producer. That he may possess true Ringling blood.

How many more intermissions before the Big Show really arrives?

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