Monday, August 26, 2013

Building to Amaze at Ringling Bros., Crew Change at Intermission Turns Labored Sight Show into Big Top Heaven

Update, 8.23.13, 7:45 am PST **

Amaze, they do:  Alex and Irina Emelin

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Built to Amaze
Oracle Arena, Oakland, CA
August 17, 2013
Ticket range: $20 - $100

I had a near-death to born-again experience watching the latest edition from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Built to Amaze, another ambitious offering from the Felds, is by turns dazzling, disjointed, finished, in-the-rough, a work of bold creativity at points nearly buried alive under hyperactive staging heavy on ensemble choreography.  Like all new construction projects, it starts out looking mired in mud and weeds (mediocre pre show antics unfold across a bleak scruffy landscape, suggesting an end-of-the-world Antonioni film), but ends up, after a long workout through the first half, soaring to the heights — a modern day greatest show on earth. Stress greatest. 

When to Arrive

** Indeed, if you want to be thrilled by Ringling in high gear, I’d kindly suggest showing up around one hour and forty minutes after the show begins; in other words, skip the first half and the 25 minute intermission. You are guaranteed thirty five minutes of a true circus spectacle for the ages.

The Danguir Troupe

This is not to completely dismiss the meandering first half hodgepodge, which certainly lays out the nuts and bolts of some decent circus essentials, including a trio of knockout turns: the blitzing opener paced by a grabbing original tune; top-of-the line comedy magic from Alex and Irina Emelin, a genius due who reap hay from a malfunctioning rabbit-in-box gag; and high wire exploits of the first order from the Danguir Troupe, the most entertaining thin-line brigade I’ve seen in many a season.  Zippy, amusing, intrepidly agile, charismatic charmers — they are from Spain!

Jackhammer Production Effects: Hard Hats Advised 

Trouble is, acts are so encased in redundant dancing frames, hard-working special effects, intense spotlighting in a perpetually (and purposely) darkened arena, and a musical score favoring a disco drone, that their impact can feel marginalized at times by the heavy handed delivery system. Not good: when dancers produce more energy than “circus".

Another drawback are mechanics.  Bear with me here:  I’m thinking, in particular, the captivating Danguir Troupe, who tarnish their stature by strapping a lifeline to the top mounter in a climactic three-high formation, act itself performed over thick secure padding below.  Makes no sense.  Might I suggest lowering the wire to, say, two feet above the mattress?

Sound Check, Please
Nor does the boisterous announcing of straight ahead ringmaster Andre McClain have any effect when it simply can’t be understood.  How amazingly ironic that a show so deftly built on high tech visuals can’t seem to afford a decent sound system. Might I suggest a trip to Radio Shack for those Feldlings?  Or perhaps at a Good Will store, a durable old radio-era stand up microphone might be waiting for a grateful taker?  I seem to recall hearing every word that ringmaster Harold Ronk spoke when he spoke into one of those things.

Nearing intermission (hold on, we’re getting to the good stuff, kids), watching the construction crews felt as much a workout for me as I suppose it did for them. Dreary example: When rolling tubs filled with spectators from the one-percent class rumble into the arena, a yawning time-consuming pay off, no doubt, to offer the pampered few close up views of the action.  Sitting there, watching them watching the circus, I asked myself, is something wrong with me for feeling a little listless and worn out?  For wondering when it all might end?  I object.

Masterfully Wrought

But then, yes then, after the prolonged interval, came the second half, and miracle of miracles, it felt as if a heavy handed veil of corporate manipulation had been lifted, the sidewalls lowered, fresh clear air allowed into the arena, and a real circus show (somewhat reminiscent of the cleanly-staged one-ring Boom a Ring at Coney) whistled in, one marvelous world class act after another.  I felt, in battered circus fan mode, born again.  To recap, drum rolls, please!

* Exhilarating gymnastics off a double trampoline from Urkaine-based Trampoline Tower Tumblers    (above).
* A very very funny clown spoof on TV talent shows casting would-be circus stars (the clowns) competing, culminating in a poodle act that blows away the judges, which is really:
Alex and Irina Emelin working statuesque poodles.  Incredible. High-voltage. Hilarious.  One of the greatest acts of any kind I have ever seen in any circus on any planet. 
* Rarely, if ever, have I witnessed an elephant production number whose interlocking elements - pachyderm tricks, musical scoring, and dancing - are so finely integrated as to form so joyful an animation.  Added to which, leaping acrobats lend this perfectly delightful outing a Barbetteian touch.
*  From there, a clever comedy interlude on skis from the true stars of the show, Russians Alex and Irina Emelin.  At the end of their turn, they effect a magical flash to fly audience attention up to:
* The double wheel display by Stars of the Steel Vortex (website gives no names)
* Powerhouse ground acrobatic tumbling from the phenomenal Negrey Troupe.  It doesn't get any better than this.
What next?  Please, I prayed to the Circus Gods, let that be the last act — not another grinding motorbike scream inside The Globe of Death.  Prayer answered.
* Fabulous Finale followed apace, this one even more spectacular than the opener.
Now, that’s half a Ringling in its finest form, evidence indisputable of creative American circus showmanship on its highest level.  I floated out of the oppressively dark-lit Oracle barn, feeling a rare re-connection to authentic three-ring circus, and rarely had there been even a single ring to behold. 

Overall score, entire show (four stars tops): 3 stars

You are always in semi-darkness when Ringling comes to town.

Next stop, assuming I can get there: Circus Vargas


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