Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Oakland, CA, August 26, 2014
What is the most interesting thing to ponder about this year’s edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey?
Around some outstanding action, there are perhaps more Feld fireworks than ever, more flash and thunder, dazzling special effects and oratorical hyperbole, more Jonathon Lee Iverson in our face, and more redundant “spectacle,” some of it pointless, all of which, in total, suggests to me that either one of two realities is responsible for this extravagantly overactive attack: Either the Felds know that this is exactly what their patrons want, and that this is what will likely keep a diminishing customer base returning -- or they are desperate.
Hard to know. At the Oakland arena, where I took in a Saturday morning show, 20 minutes before showtime, at one point there was but a single soul standing at one of five or seven open ticket windows. I recall recent years when all the windows were jammed.
Inside, however, the crowd added up to — a guess — not quite what it’s been the last many years, maybe a thousand or 500 less. A good decent crowd, anyway, by today’s standards, considering that perhaps one third if not more than the arena seats are darkened and shut out of view by the backdrop. My guess: 3,900 and counting ... Maybe 4,500 tops
It’s a big crowd pleaser, in the Feld smorgasbord style. And it tells me that, like father, like daughter, producer Nicole Feld seems geared to perpetuate the formula.
I floated out of last year's opus (credit a brilliant second half), feeling quite fine. This time, I left feeling more than a little used, worked over, assaulted with all the flash and ringmaster bombast — something like, how to put this, the night after a marathon of hot you-know-what, when you end up feeling a little led on and then abandoned, a little empty.
I’m not going to file a full review, for if I did, it would feel like writing a review I have already written too many times. And you might turn away in disgust, or take out a class action law suit against me for hazardous prose.
So, cutting to essentials, from the good to the bad, here goes.
* The opening number is absolutely, flat out, the most visually stunning and bizarre piece of circus stagecraft I have ever seen, and during it, I felt like I was truly at the Greatest Show on Earth. There is something supernatural about it, something truly otherworldly, as if a circus from a far galaxy had entered the house. Here is where the Felds never let you down.
* From Vicki Zsilak and Hans and Maria Close, a mixed animal display, some of it stagnant, but with wonderfully trained dogs and pigs, and — are you ready? — two kangaroos jumping into the ring and over obstacles! What an exhilarating surprise! Now, that’s circus in the ascendant.
* Great Chinese hoop divers, about as great as they come -- one of four offerings from the China National Acrobatic Troupe.
* Chinese female bike riders forming captivating pasterns in their ensemble, complete with a human pyramid built on two bicycles. Loved it. They also work a big group diablo display, some of it a little shaky, lifted to a solid climax by two nifty solo turns.
* Kanat and Tatiana Tchalabaev, and their horse riders, Roman to Cossack style, pound and pulse with raw primal power, made even more rewarding by the robust inclusion of women riders. If only there was some sawdust to raise. The Ringling set continues to be about as glamorous as a K-Mart parking lot.
* Animal trainer Alexander Lacey, one of the reasons I went to see the show -- knowing little about him, but what a revelation. A true star, offering the most fully satisfying cage act I think I have ever seen, certainly in modern times, and why? Finely wrought executions, marvelous moments when the tigers and lions appear to be acting out certain attitudes and behaviors; novelty and a tender rapport through a little Russianesque narrative, with the trainer talking to his charges and giving each, in turn, permission to “go home.” One, a lion, wishes first to spend a little quality time with the other lion. A little intimacy begins to surface. “Okay,” says Lacey, “that’s for later.” Only drawback is a tiger who angrily gets into the trainer's face, smacking of a staged crisis. But altogether, Lacy’s warm persona, his easy relationship with the tigers and lions, and the act’s developing shape, mark it as a high point in circus history, I would venture. Monte Carlo Gold.
Okay, onto the other stuff, so-so to forgettable:
* Clowns score well in their first outing, satirizing the Chinese bike-riding number. but their subsequent contributions are ho-hum, never very funny, and lamely lacking payoffs.
* Too much filler, such as: Self-loving, self-acclaiming Jonathan Lee Iverson’s frequent shout outs to the audience for shout backs to the veiled question, are you at the Greatest Show on Earth? He, a first class pain in the posterior, works the show like a political rally, and maybe people love being worked over this way. Is there such a thing as being verbally groped? His fine singing voice is clear and powerful, and he holds his end notes so eternally long, I could see myself booking passage on one of them for another trip to, say, China.
* A big mammoth meant to astonish turns out to be a costumed, rather threadbare illusion, worked by concealed understanders. It fizzles. And always never far away is a repetitive slow moving spectacle that seems to keep returning, each time in a slightly altered format and content. In one instance, it comes off as a little pointless, and just before intermission, it feels more like a finale. This show was not smartly directed.
* Like the show, the loud, far-from-subtle music is a mixed bag, from artful to awful.
* Some stuff is humdrum, or just flops out, like the flying act, during which a back-to-back triple was promised, but only attempted once, the flyer missing, but not trying again. That made me suspicious of his success rate.
Thus, my quick overview, not wishing to linger.
Back to my “evolving” theme, bottom line: This circus almost certainly on average pulls more people around its ring(s) than any other circus in the world. Forget about yesterday. We live in today.
3.900 (just throwing it out -- the actual number of people who witnessed the Providence aerial collapse) may not seem big. But compared to the others, 3,900 IS big.
The Felds may have figured it all out, that is, speculating here, that the average city simply does not contain as many people as it once did who are eager and ready to patronize a circus.
Overall rating for Legends (four stars max): Three Stars
Next on: Can a circus be as bad as a certain circus out there is, and as good — at the same time? Guess which one?