Saturday, March 25, 2023

MY LAST FULL-RINGLING CIRCUS REVIEW: Heavy Scripting at the Circus: Ringling's Tediously Overwrought Out of This World Loses Heart in Space ... Animal Stars Save the Trip

3.25.22: Three of the show's very best acts, in my opinion and, as I recall, audience reactions, featured old tent show stars that will no longer be anywhere when the "reborn Ringling"  hits the arenas later this year.

Circus Review:
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Out of This World
Oakland, August 20

Having just seen the new edition of Ringling Bros. Circus, Out of This World, I am filled with a disorienting mixture of exasperation and exhilaration, and, mostly a sadness for something so ambitious that left me so wanting.  Or feeling so cold.  Even the mere sight of ice makes me feel that way.

You can’t blame the Felds for trying.  They are up against an increasingly jaded ticket buyer.

What they give us here is a tediously complicated sight and special effects show adding up, in its weaker frames, to much ado about nothing. If you want flash and lots of ensemble action on skates, you’ve got plenty of that.  If you want substance and clarity, don’t expect much here.  Perhaps this one was tailor made for the Disney on Ice moppets. 

Out of This World strains to tell a story, much of it ill staged off to one side, that may have more potential in cinema.  Since I did not buy the program, and could not understand all the announcements about it over a variable sound system, I will defer to a description of it on the website: “A heroic quest of good versus evil.” And how does that grab you?  Opening segments  run very slow. 

             Encore for Big Cage Masterpiece from Alexander Lacey

 Send in the pigs!  How absolutely ironic, given the Felds stated need to compensate for the absence of elephants by breaking ground in new directions, that their first outing, post pachyderms, should realize its greatest appeal over the audience in old directions -- through its animal stars.  Through two acts, in particular:  The magnificent  tiger and lion display of Alexander Lacey, and the Cossack-style horse riders.  Yet another winning animal turn, no plot necessary,  has Lacey working a mixed group in the one fixed ring, including goats and a jumping kangaroo, while dogs and pigs nearby delight the crowd.  Ringling's website does not mention any of the acts by name.

Entering the arena, you are immediately placed in a very definite atmosphere that conveys the imagery of space travel.  Opening music, pre-recorded, is very strong.  When the band takes over and the animal acts hold court, the disconnect between the older fashioned circus and the rest of this overwrought hodgepodge is remarkable to behold: Circus, straight up, is far and away the more compelling force at work here.

I counted three standout routines: Lacey's cage display, the Cossack horse riders, and  probably the best flying return act I've seen in years. The Tunziani Troupe. Multiple riggings with flyers working side by side, offering a wealth of twisting and turning, deliver the real thing.  A thrilling climax has two triples executed simultaneously, the flyers moving perfectly in sync, AND in opposite directions, and both landing.  Who could ever ask for anything more?

It is revealing to feel so calmly anchored by the Lacy cage act, the flyers, and the horse riders.  This  same feeling of steady and compelling focus, however,  is hard to come by when heavy-handed ringmaster Iverson and others are hard at work trying to push a frivolous and plodding tale.

During the Cossack campaign, which lifts the show to a rousing end-point, I thought of  the English equestrian Philip Astley, who invented the circus over two centuries ago.    Here, his vision came brilliantly through: Power, speed, courage, agility, grace and gusto, and all in a ring.  CIRCUS, my friend.

For me, this was the true story line.  Compared to trying to make a circus into a lame play, the broad  strokes of the best performances were  far and away what moved the crowd.  I was there to hear it and to share it.  And when audiences leave this show,  the memory of those acts will give them greater pause to question the validity of everything else in the coldly alien Out of This World.

Despite the high points, frankly, it was something of a pain to sit through to the end, but I did.

Ringling, come back to earth!

Overall rating:  (out of four stars max)  2 stars 

Originally posted 8.20.2016

Preface update, 5/16,17: First posted last August, this will have been my last Ringling review. How sad and sorry I am that it will be the last Ringling circus seen by the public. Whatever its merits in experimentation, it is arguably the most un-Ringling performance of them all.  How I had wished the public could have seen the more traditional Circus Xtreme. What will I remember the most about Out of This World?  Not the cold ice.  Not the plodding space ventures.  I will happily recall  the absolute delight that a pig sliding down a slide gave the audience. Then we were as one. Joyfully amused. Fully connected to “the ageless delight.” But there are other high points to, well worth remembering ... Au Revoir, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey,  the Big Show, the Big One, Big Bertha, the once great Greatest Show on Earth!

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

A Preview of Ringling's New Layout

This is what the "re-imagined" layout will look like when the reborn Ringling comes to an arena near you.

The Felds released it through AP.

Its graphics reminds me a little  of the Norman Bel Geddes designed pole-less big top back in the 1940s.

Friday, March 10, 2023

At Last! MLB to Warmup-Stalling Prissies: Pick Up the Bat, Cut the Crap, and PLAY the Damn Game! - New Clock Pacer Promises to Revive Most Borimg Game on Earth ...

Early results are good.  Games being shaved by 20 to 30 minutes, partial relief for long-time fans like myself from marathon baseball.  It should only be a start. 

Sunday, February 26, 2023

John Ringling North and the Prince: How a Great Circus Festival Was (or might have been) Born ... And the Record Setting Unicycle Act It Shockingly Snubbed ... It’s All on the Inside!

 * updated, 3.5.23

Aboard his private car the Jomar, John Ringling North, second from left, and Henry, far right, entertain Bette Davis during a Los Angeles date in the 1940s.

Deep into the January night of '56, before flying out to Hollywood the next morning to announce his engagement to Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier was pumping drums in the kingdom of Sarasota, jamming  with his saxophone-playing friend, John Ringling North at the M’Toto room in the John Ringling Hotel. The world that night may have seemed a perfect place for both.

North, the visionary dreamer in his youth

His brainstorm, Ballet of the Elephants, 1942, was choreographed by George Balanchine, scored by Igor Stravinsky

At the time of their jam session, the young prince was 32 and North's celebrity was at its highest peak.  He had played himself in a cameo in DeMille's 1952 blockbuster The Greatest Show on Earth.  His mug appeared in newspaper and magazine ads, and his legendary talent-scouting travels through Europe each summer were dramatized as a secondary plot in the new film, Trapeze, about to be released on May 30.

Six weeks later, the magical aura of it all came crashing down in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Faced with a  nasty and prolonged labor strike, and the ultimate surrender to the crippling economics of moving so giant an organization over rails, North struck the big top for good, and moved the show into tentless venues. For this, he was reviled by the fans, myself included, as something akin to the man who killed Santa Claus.

Ringling to Rainer


By the time the prince and Princess Grace were raising a family of three children — Caroline, Albert and Stephanie --- John’s new all-indoor version of Ringling was winning back big profitable crowds, partly by his importing the best performers he could get from eastern Soviet-block countries (keep this in mind too). North sold the show to the Felds in 1967.  And seven years later, Prince Rainier created the International Circus Festival in Monte Carlo, which soon became the most respected of all such tournaments.  North, now a nearly forgotten figure, served on the jury now and then, was introduced to audiences and modestly nodded in return.  And that was it.

 Princess Grace and Prince Rainier, in the judges box

Princess Stephanie, the youngest of the three children, grew up under the spell of her father's glamorous festivals, and it seems likely that this is where she became romantically involved, one after another, with two of its competitors. She first fell for married elephant trainer Franco Knie, into whose caravan she and three children from previous relationships moved. Two years later, she married Portuguese acrobat Adans Lopez Peres, then performing in Knie's circus. The marriage was also short-lived, but the circus had claimed Stephanie's wild bohemian spirit.  

After Prince Rainier passed away in 2005,  Stephanie assumed directorship of the festivals. She became not just an honored and steady figure of support for circus everywhere,  but arguably the circus world’s most fearless talent scout. Today, she and her associates comb the globe for the best acts out there, who appear at the festival only by invitation.  And today, politics evidently does not affect their scores, as witness the list below.

My biggest complaint (or regret) with the festival is that it does not enjoy world wide coverage, nor am I aware of any efforts out of Monte Carlo to seek such. Circus art is the only major entertainment not honored, at least annually on a televised awards show here in the states.  The movies and Broadway.  Pop music. Television.  Even ballroom dancing and dog shows are televised. The circus?  The prospects were not helped any by Irvin  Feld taking  out a one-ring tent show featuring acts from Monte Carlo. It did not last a season.

Okay, the following list shows the number of Gold Clowns awarded by country.  I would love to see a list for Silver Clowns.

 * 21. All countries of Europe together

14 former USSR countries all together
14 China
10   Russia
10 North Korea
7 Italy
 5 USA, shared with Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, Italy, Algeria
4 USA alone (Bale, Nock, Gatto, Carl)
4 Switzerland
3 France
2 Canada
2 Spain
2 Ukraine
2 England
2 Germany
2  Hungary
1 Portugal
1 Bulgaria   
1 Romania  

Circus Therapy in America.

I spot only two genuine American-born winners, Ohio-native clown George Carl and Brooklyn-born juggler Anthony Gatto, taught by his father, a former vaudevillian, and the only juggler ever to win a gold clown.  The U.S., I have long observed, is not a primary source of world-class action.  Don’t look for a dramatic turnaround anytime soon. If anything, the situation will only grow worse, no matter how many new “circus schools” on campuses emerge, given the woke choke that has them in a vice.  Forget about gymnastic power and skill. Look for more slow-moving narrative, including "character arc," equity equilibristics pushing gender-bending contortion and self-annihilation on the static trapeze. Real circus has no time for such gilded nonsense.  Have I lost you yet?  Now, let’s get our hopes high again.

They're Back! 


      Fanfare for the Colossally Snubbed 

Unicyclist wonder Wesley Williams, who competed this past January at Monte Carlo, beyond setting a world record riding the highest bike, must have been left thunderstruck for failing to earn even a bronze clown. I have seen Wesley’s act on You Tube, and was engaged by his feats and winning personality.  Since not awarded by the jury, he became qualified for special recognition by any of the sponsors, and two of them so honored him.  What he accomplished in my view is equal to a quad.   And, yes , I wasn't there to see it myself, so whom am I to?  ...

Let’s see if Kenneth Feld books him for the return of a reformed Ringling.  Of course, Wesley might say no. Or Feld might fear that so perilous an act could upset the snowflakes and ballet larks he may be being hoping to attract to his no-animals circus. 

The festival will endure as long as Stephanie endures.  And however controversial her screening procedures or judging criteria  may be, of this I am sure: Were he alive today, John Ringling North could well understand and appreciate the attention she gives to such far off places as North Korea.   The “ageless delight,” as Ernest Hemingway once called it, lives on in the darkest corners of the world.  And those  daring mortals who excel despite all hardships deserve our warmest accolades and support.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Ringling Trumpets New Acts from Around the World in Modern "Immersive" Rebirth on Tap ... Goodbye, Old Circus, Good Bye ...


The circus is coming!
Right under the big top,
Step up, see a pig hop
through a flaming hoop! –
We're one amazing troupe! 
You won't see a pig hop, nor a  big top rise when the circus once known as the Greatest Show on Earth comes calling in a city near you, and there are a whopping 154 of them spread from sea to shining sea.  They are calling this the greatest return in show biz history. Well don't slight them for over kill. From  the Felds:

"Opening night is just a hop, skip and double somersault away. We're crazy excited, and we're heading your way!"

Indeed they are. Chances are, unless you live in the states of Oregon and Washington, that you won't be  too far from one of the cities they've listed. Close enough to make the drive on a single battery charge. Only are San Francisco and Chicago missing.  Not sure what that means.  Some photos from the show's underwhelming photo sampler:

Legit circus.  I'd like to see more of this.

How about Wesley Williams???

Ballet Circus: I could be crazy fine without another snail-paced contortion.

So what to expect?  This I am fairly certain, given the Big One's track record in talent scouting, I have no doubt you will see a few great acts, maybe more.  More may be the key to success or failure, because this resurrected ghost won't be coming to town with the clowns and the animals that could give the show far greater variety and depth.

What to question:  They push the idea of something "immersive" and  interactive, a 360 degree viewing experience to bring you into more intimate contact with the performers.  I ask, where do you find such peripheral apparatus on a Broadway stage?  At a pop concert? At the movies?  On a TV reality show?  

Whatever the outcome, the new Ringling roll out should  be a fascinating experiment to follow.

Swinging ballerinas and dancing elephants,
 Obstreperous hyenas our daring fella hunts!
A show for the rich -- and
A show for the poor
Hey!  Come thrill to our 
Great grand carnival of fun
Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows
 are [were] coming to town!

Monday, January 09, 2023

New Bio of Stormy Circus King Delivers Sawdust, Spangles, and Mayhem

Book Review

The Killing of Lord Sanger, by Karl Shaw

Icon Books -- now available on Amazon Kindle. The book edition is due out March 4

Mourned by the multitudes in the wake of his shocking death, did Britain's Barnum really deserve their adoring accolades?  An enthralling new book by Karl Shaw, set in circus land UK during the Edwardian era, tells two interlocking stories, one of the legendary circus king, the other about the search for the  man who murdered him.The Killing of Lord George opens our eyes on what it was really like  trouping through the British Isles during an age of brawling competition between shows, when the survival of the fittest one season was no guarantee of the same for the next.

As for the morbid murder mystery, told in alternating chapters, this makes for a different kind of read which some may find off-putting -- back and forth between sawdust rings and homicide investigations. Oddly, as I returned to each, I was keener on its side of the narrative moving forward. A rare two for one.

George Sanger carried on the lavish spectacles established by circus founder, Phillip Astley, once the latter was gone.  He started out in his father’s circus as  a magician, and would became UK’s greatest showman, according to a Times of London obit quoted in  this admirably researched bio.  Sanger and his brother, John, at one time had a multitude of circus rings circling Europe.  All of which earned him high praise from The New York Times, calling him "the English Barnum."

 I knew nothing of the man himself other than his prolongation of the Astley legacy, and here his life comes suddenly spilling out, as messy as a clogged up sink faucet not unplugged in over a hundred years.  Which makes this man a difficult character to like. Brace yourself.  Among many devious attributes, Sanger was a chronic liar who may have self-anointed himself a Lord. He possessed a natural — or shrewdly staged — gift for philanthropy, so widespread as to enjoy the status of  “a national treasure, loved and respected by all,” in the words of Shaw.  It’s the darker side of Mr. Sanger that spreads gloom through the pages. 

Away from the spotlights and glitter, let’s start on the home front.  “He never let go of his hatred for his son in law,” writes Shaw, the sin being that his daughter had dared to wed a headline performer with a  “celebrated rival.”  This anger applied to other relatives along the way.

On the animal front, in a court of law today Sanger would likely have been hauled in and easily convicted of willfully ordering the killing of an old animal to serve as a prop in a cynical publicity stunt.

Savage Task Master 

Onto the shows:  The prim, compact circus lord could turn into a quality-control monster against underachieving performers. “He was sadistic if an artist failed during a performance.” reveals Shaw, to whose credit should go honors for such unfaltering attention, for it surely does nothing to gild his otherwise sunny portrait of the man’s boundless humanity and good will to others.   For instance, take Astley’s treatment of a young wire walker who fell from her perch more than once. In stormy reaction, the offended boss “offered her a penknife from his pocket and said ‘here, don’t cut your throat, cut your bloody head off!’ Scores of performers came and went, and only the bravest or most loyal stayed the course. Those who fell short had their contracts terminated with a short: ‘Call yourself an actor? get off my stage!'"

Animal cruelty?  How about human cruelty?  I know how callously heartless circus owners can be, but I can’t think of one quite this sociopathic.

Perhaps The Killing of Lord George could have spent more time prose painting the man’s laudatory posters and programs, and the name dropping could had been  more elaborately fleshed out.  There is not a single image of circus, or the word itself, on the book’s cover.  It’s biggest failure, in my view,  is a glaring lack of full-page illustrations, preferably in color, that scream CIRCUS.  Grainy black and white images of news stories, diagrams and photos serve the story well, but may fail to captivate a wider audience.  

Sleuthing the sawdust shadows for tales of hardship and mayhem, Shaw cunningly compels with gripping accounts of the sudden dangers inherent in tent trouping.  It’s a miracle that none of the Sanger's were burned to death in the cinder box wagons in which they lived.   Thieves and rivals wishing to loot and defile could sneak up from every which direction.  Inglorious weather, bum crowds,  and periodic outbreaks of cholera, shuttered circus folk into shivering, food-deprived retreat.  In the worst of seasons, we read, some literally “starved to death.” Really?

The Lion Queen's Favorite

For Anglophile history buffs in particular, the book is intricately placed in the times of Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria, both circus fans who make impressive contributions.  The Queen "had a weakness for lion taming acts.” In her diary, she wrote "one can never see too often."  She doted with delight over the wild animal displays of  Sanger’s young wife, Nellie, seen above, and this earned the show two command performances before her royal majesty.  

Sanger's obvious envy for his American rivals who competed with him on his own turf, mainly William F. Cody and Barnum & Bailey, produced a torrent of  petty unflattering scorn and ridicule, some published in his memoir. "There is nothing that American showman have ever done that Englishmen have not done first and not done better." Blatantly false.  For one thing, the failed three ring format that Sanger claimed to have first used in 1860 was far better used when Barnum & Bailey took it on the road in 1881 -- if, in fact, they had "stolen" the idea from Sanger, as he claimed. There is insufficient evidence to support the boast.  Another grandiose lie?

Another Man on Another Night

The darker side of our problematic genius comes to a grizzly end when he is murdered by an axe and razor, the most likely suspect being a young man who had shared his bedroom by night, until being ejected.  Shaw covers this in a strangely incomplete manner. Explains he, ever so politely without ever dropping the H word,  the relationship between the two “followed a predictable course.  He (Sanger)  would quickly form a very close attachment with his new favorite, shower him with presents and take him wherever he went.  In Herbert Cooper’s case at least, this intimacy included sharing a bedroom.  Then, just as quickly, George would drop him and replace him with another.”

Such was the fate of the tall and handsome, 29-year old  Cooper  “usurped in Sanger’s affections by Arthur Jackson, just as surely as Herbert himself had been a substitute for someone else. One day he was the old man's special friend,  the next he was effectively ostracized, excommunicated from the Park Farm inner sanctum.”

Notice how much fun our author seems to have over that last line, which only makes it more incredible that he would not have at least raised the subject of a homosexual union or fetish of some kind, if only to raise the issue and put it to rest. I was left fairly dumbfounded.

Shaw defers to the press, plenty interested in Sanger’s relations with Cooper.   Some  newspapers suspected revenge being the motive, had Cooper in fact been the assailant.  In the end, sketchy testimony leaves a muddled impression, although Shaw wishes us to believe otherwise. That is, that the killer was not Cooper.  The Times at the time believed he was.  Others believe it still to be a mystery.

There is much to hold your interest in this offbeat treat.  I have never dug deep enough to realize how the Brits were as drawn to the kink and gore of side shows as we were over here. Another topic that held my fascination was the  intersection between British and American circus owners over both their rivalries and the exchange and/or leasing of each other’s ideas, with vividly described cameos from likes of P.T. Barnum and William Buffalo Bill Cody. After all, we and they were in the same business when “elephants were the perpetual Victorian circus favorites.”  Which makes this book a must-read for serious scholars and lovers of circus history.

I’ll go out with a teaser.  You could  never guess how Cooper’s life came to an end.

Shaw is also the author of The First Showman: The Extraordinary Life of Philip Astley.

Memo to Masterpiece.  If you can’t see the drama in this, you don't deserve to be funded.   Over to you, ITV?  


Wednesday, December 28, 2022

End of the Year, Randomly on Parade: Big Top Bits, Past, Present, and Maybe Future ...

    IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER, such as the stack of notes and e-mails too long ignored on a shelf I lazily glance at now and then. But now for each, it’s gloss it or toss it time.  I’m giving these little snatches of sawdust and spangly things one final chance to be something across my loyal 2008 Del Vostro keyboard, to which I am hopelessly attached, using it only for Word Perfect drafts. 

      LET THE GREAT HAROLD RONK blow the first whistle on this impromptu grab bag laid bare.  And let this be the Ronk fondly revealed by Don Covington in an a-mail to me dated September 9, 2016.  It was too too good ever to let languish. Now, finally, it’s up and ready to roll.   Harold, shared Don, became “a vital part of my perception of circus.”  While working on the Big Apple Circus, Don  enjoyed hosting Harold whenever he came out to take in a performance during the Chicago date (yes, they once toured).

     ENGLAND'S BELOVED RINGMASTER, Norman Barrett was one season Big Apple’s man in red. The retired Harold was Big Apple’s red letter patron in the seats, and after the show he approached  Barrett with pleasure.  “I have always wanted to meet you.” Likewise, too, from the other gratefully in return.  Don added Paul Binder to the circle, and Paul recounted how Harold, under Madison Square Garden spotlights, had “epitomized the ideal ringmaster.”  All of which “overwhelmed” Ronk, as Don remembers, the Ronk who by then  wasn’t sure anyone would still remember him.  He spent  the afternoon with Buckles and Barbara Woodcock.  “It was a magical day,” wrote Don.  Ringling’s iconic ringmaster passed away the following year.

 ... I WILL FOREVER RECALL the stoutly commanding figure cut by Ronk for Ringling, the brief and fleeting time it took him, and his smooth soaring voice against a crashing follow spot or two, as if answering its cue, to officially thunder CHILDREN    OF  A L L L L L  AGES !  Never was a circus more blazingly unfurled ... Al Ringling, when once describing the proper decorum of the man with whistle  — “elusive yet vital” --- was describing  the Harold yet to be.  How lucky was I to have lived through his prime.           

: Next down the stack, from Anonymous (whom I know well),  retelling with relish chapter two of quad mania over Ringling.  Giddy Irvin Feld,  seen here, in 1982 trumpeted the first star to nail the feat, Miguel Vazquez.  Six  seasons later, Feld's son Kenneth added Rueben Caballero, Jr. to the show in a  cynical move to grab more headlines.    Only once did both Miguel and Reuben spin four circles beside each other  — what a spectacle to see! .... The tension between the two and their respective families became so great, that an explosion nearly rocked the Oakland arena, site of a “a massive brawl” backstage, and sent shock waves through the circus grapevine.

     REMEMBERING THE BLOODY OUTCOME,  wrote A,  “Our old friend Marcks hanging around the lot had gotten the juicy details and found it quite humorous that the daughter Veronica (Caballero)  had whacked Miguel in the face, sending him to the hospital.”  A furious Kenneth Feld fired the Caballeros on the spot, but they eventually charmed a flight path back into Feld’s favor ...  Does anybody still do the quad? ...  There was a time when the flying trapeze dominated audience satisfaction.  Fundamental to  fabulous, they were the best way to bring the show to a rousing climax.

      ABOUT MY BEST CIRCUS FRIEND EVER, Don Marcks (until we sadly had a wordless falling out), how I valued his company, we were so damn different, hut CIRCUS kept us viably and vividly connected, the phone calls were long, never boring, my visits to his place a frequent journey into another world more strict and settled.  The New England born Don specialized in outward restraint, but he did let go a tad when up close and off the lots, venting his real thoughts on this or that  act. And, as you can see from the above,  he turned discreetly gleeful over backyard drama circling the rumor mills   He loved to ride a juicy disclosure with a backward lift into an almost apologetic giggle.

    FROM MY CAVE MAN SCRIBBLES on a piece of paper, I can now report, that in the higher halls of academically supported circus-type learning (non binary certified, I assume), it is claimed that in every state in this here union there is now at least one circus school.  And what, may I inelegantly ask, do they have to show for themselves?  They now have the example of Circus Jeventas, signed by Cirque du Soliel to serve as a “talent development center” for the Montreal monster ....  This, if anything, will likely produce more fringe circus converts being taught how to give the public a few good circus acts — without the circus.
most of the best ones flourish in communist countries, maybe the harsher atmosphere is more conducive to the demanding discipline needed to produce something more than a few pleasant rollovers on the fluffy fabrics ... Can you spell Russia?  CHINA?  Even the very democratic UK, land of circus invention, has two major teaching centers --- London’s National Center for Circus Arts, and Circommedia in Bristol.  And they're turning out committed young graduates, 93% of whom are still working in circuses three years after graduation. Now, I’d say this calls for one of ringmaster Ronk’s classic  exhortations:  W A T CH    T H E M ! 


     BUT HOLD YOUR WHISTLE,  Sir Harold! Most of those graduates are unlikely  to end up under the commercial big tops, reported a valued contributor to this blog, Douglas McPherson,  in an in-depth he wrote on the subject for The Stage.  Here, I am belatedly drawing from his story, safely held in my stack:  “British  circus schools emerged from the ‘new circus’ sector''”  And that, of course, means a kinder gentler circus without cherry pie (raising canvas, peddling popcorn, etc.)  Many of the graduates, notes Douglas, will join up with Cirque du Soleil or Seven Fingers, or Circa, or start up their own  companies.  England’s leading circus lords who value audience size and ticket price still comb eastern Europe and South America for the best talent ... I suspect that Russia and China are iffy these days given international politics ...  


     MCPHERSON KEEPS ME IMPRESSIVELY APPRISED  on the sawdust scene his way, such as when he sent me a you tube of the complete performance of a wham bang show, Circus Xtreme --  the surprise highlight of my circus going in 2022, all of which occurred in You Tube land.  Not under a real tent?  How I wanted to take in the ever-lovable Zoppe  Family, but not on the day they played 50 miles north under 90+ degrees inside a tent. I am no longer a kid who walks miles to see a circus while power-snacking on Ding Dongs and Twinkies.  

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST: The passing of a major critical voice in the circus arts was  Ernest Albrecht, who left us this past year, and with him, his thoughtful  magazine Spectacle.  I will miss his voice.  His perspective.  I particularly  enjoyed comparing his reviews against those of the sharp London critic,  Liz Arratoon, when both reviewed  Monte Carlos Circus Festivals.  A double pleasure ... Albrecht’s  last review may have been the one he did of Circus Sarasota, shortly before the outset of Corona, after which he was never heard from again.  He had  many qualms with the show, supposing the producers had drained the bulk of their kitty on two star attractions, with the rest being very ordinary.  Here is one of them:
     “A JUGGLING ACT CALLED GET THE SHOE never really got very interesting.  While the title of the act suggests something creative and comical, the two young men who work the act are, unfortunately, almost totally lacking  in stage presence ... nothing more than sloppy juggling mixed with marital arts."

    HOW ARC IS YOUR CHARACTER?  Beware what you may wish for: Albrecht covered circuses of all ilk, and was an advocate for what he called the New American Circus in his book of the same name.  To its pages flocked the young, eager to get on with the times.   But, the movement Albrecht  helped give voice and printed page to may have gone too far even for his taste.  He suffered a jaw-dropping discovery in the pages of Circus Talk when one of its more sophisticated reviewers complained about the muddled impression of one performer’s “character  arc.” You did not wish for it to go this far, Ernest?  The term is used in theater. Albrecht became nearly unhinged over the audacity of such an expectation.  And by extension, I'd say,  over how far the “new circus” movement had veered into theater land.  


     IN THE GARDEN OF NUCLEAR SNOW CONES:  Perhaps it had to happen, my being reminded of a depressing fact, that out there are shows that hurt rather than help American big tops.  At the top of the list is Garden Bros. Could be Dick or Niles.  It’s still Garden.  Ringmaster and more Tim Tegge, merely chatting about the season with me on the phone, did not exactly intend it that way when marveling over how well their Nuclear Circus is doing. He was awed by the "huge tent, " mighty impressive on the lot, "lit up like a Christmas tree at night." Most enthused about clown Hector Frias.   Music of course recorded. Without a ringmaster,  a rather formless affair with some good-enough acts. "I thought it was OK at best."  

    WHY HAD I NOT HEARD THE WORD Nuclear attached to circus? Perhaps I had, but ran into the word “Garden” and knee-jerk deleted the whole thing ... So ... I checked out reviews on Yelp, dreadfully savage one star slams for the most part. Free kiddie tickets lured parents into “a money pit.” $60 seats, ringside. $12 snow cone jobs, any side.  Pony rides and paint-on faces cheering on the moppets to beg for more. "No ring leader," lamented some.  Dancing dames in thongs sexing up space between acts.  Disgusted parents baling  at intermission.  Some did grant satisfaction with the acts.  Many ranted against animal mistreatment, a horse being whipped.   Okay, let me wrap this here:  This kind of a show does incalculable harm to public perception of the America circus, and it continues to drag down what’s left of it.  And I think the American public at large has been talked into  degrees of indifference or total rejection, possibly unmatched in any other country. Thank you Tim, for the inadvertent reality check. 

      I'M HAVING, OR WAS HAVING so much fun, now I wish there was more.  But there isn’t other than to say — to Don Covington on this side of the pond, Douglas McPherson on the other -- my deepest thanks for the stream of links and news items you send my way.   Thank you, too, Tanbark Titan Tim and  Awesomely Anonymous -- whomever you are, for your insightful comments. I have a new respect for the slush pile, and this next year, I’m letting it grow slushier, fatter, and may do a periodic purge to page, but then, but then ...

    NEXT YEAR SHOULD BE BIG,  at least in the headlines, for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is coming back, in some form or another. Tim sees a train wreck in the making.  I see Cirque du Soleil on steroids.  Neither of us sees The Greatest Show on Earth.  And You?  Kenneth Feld fired all the animal acts, likely to win a gold medal from PETA.  But he may lose a large and loyal audience base out there that has no problem with dogs and horses and may resent the total absence of a menagerie.  How can you return if it's not you returning?

Let me me wish you all a happy New Year!   

WHY I STILL MISS CIRCUS REPORT:  Like a flickering light in the darkening shadows, it gave us the shows and the write-ups, the obits and those wonderful routes that made every fragile thing still very real ... Like a lone red wagon up streets of indifference, it kept on rolling.  Like the single light bulb raised to illuminate Foley & Burke flat cars down by the old ice house, as  late into the night its ride wagons came rumbling down the runs for their trek out to the fairgrounds ...  The lots grew less crowded, the tents smaller, the parade thinner,  but Circus Report kept that one flickering light aglow.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

How to Enjoy The Original Sound of Music -- Like it or Not: West End DVD of Live Broadcat, a Sublime Treat

Would you like your sound of music with a little less sugar, a bit more spice?  With a few songs on the sassier, more sophisticated side?  Could you take it with Julie taking the night off, and another winning face being your Maria? And how about a running time clocking in at a lean two hours rather than three?

I may have the ticket for you!  I've just discovered The Sound of Music Live, 2015, from the UK.    Directed to the point by Coky Giedroyc, this version follows the original script and brings back a couple of great songs that were dropped from the movie.  This one will give you a good idea of what the show was really like at the very beginning ... So let's make that the perfect place to start, okay? 

A LITTLE BACKGROUND: When the musical opened on Broadway in 1959, it was met with glowing first-night notices from first string critics ---“a show of rare enchantment” ... “An utterly captivating work”' .. “The loveliest musical imaginable.”  And derided by sugar-averse anti-sentimentalists.  Complained Walter Kerr on this side of the pond, “it becomes not only too sweet for words, but almost too sweet for music..  And on the other side, Kenneth Tynan declared it  “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Great Leap Backward."

A DARKNESS SUBTLY FELT: Its detractors may have missed or overlooked the darkening shadows of Nazi aggression (circa 1938) that do loom a little in the wings, dramatized by Hitler’s underlings pushing for Captain Von Trapp to get with the program.  They may also have ignored the contrasting bite of two sophisticated songs, "No Way to Stop It" and "How Can Love Survive." 

HOLLYWOOD SUNNY SIDE UP UP UP.  On balance, this overworking charmer when it first hit the boards spread good will in shameless abundance, and it only became more relentlessly sweet when Hollywood turned it into a phenomenal success.  Today, some call it the world’s favorite movie.  Now, in the words of Mr. Tynan, suffering a glucose meltdown, happy talk in the alps was “singing in the syrup.” Incredibly, it left behind those two deliciously worldly songs that  provided cynical relief.         

TURNING R&H TO SAINTHOOD:   This transformation on the silver screen began with the omission of “A Lonely Room” from the 1955 film version of Oklahoma, and continued on in The King & I, whose wittiest song,  “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?, was a blistery rebuke sung by Ana to the domineering King. The number was either banned from the shooting script or left on the cutting room floor.  If Dick and Oscar were bothered by their critics, they only stood to antagonize them more by not pushing to keep these sobering songs in tact.   Damn those two larks still learning to pray!  

RELIEF FROM ACROSS THE POND.  To the rescue of score preservation came the Brits. Trevor Nunn’s inspired 1999 staging, of Oklahoma restored “A Lonely Room” to the lineup. Jimmy Johnston, the gifted  actor who played Jud, gave it a harrowing rendition for the ages. Possibly the most dramatic moment I’ve ever spent at a musical.  My only problem with Nunn’s direction is that he tends to overplay his hand in realism by underlining dialogue and fostering too many reprises of songs and dances.  His staging clocked in at a whopping three hours, exceeding the stage version by a at least a good half hour. I grew restless down the  final stretch. 

 A SOUND OF MUSIC, MORE SMARTLY RESTORED: But another set of West End theater gods favored brevity over bloat in this remarkable 2015 live broadcast production of the team’s last work, The Sound of Music, starring Kara Tointon and Julian Ovenden. And I am now elated to be the holder of my own brand new DVD, having belatedly tracked it down in a google dig.  It clocks in at a tight and terrific one minute less than two hours.

SOPHISTICATION RETURNS:  The two songs left out of the film starring Julie Andrews have not only been restored, they have been blessed with witty choreography that gives each a joyfully satiric edge. The captain’s house servants whoop it up (subtly, of course) in “How Can Love Survive,” slyly self-mocking their fawning over the pampered class in snidely hilarious fashion. So, too, do they make a merry romp out of “No Way to Stop It.”   

 Ballet of the saucy servants: How Can Love to Survive

Warning to fans of the movie: Songs have been re-positioned to their original order, and his may irate you, as it seems to many Andrews fans. 

ONE BIG RESTORATION INSULT:  Oddly, the producers did not reinstate a lovely ballad from the original show, “An Ordinary Couple,” but inexplicably retained a dreadfully inane ditty, “Something Good,” composed for the movie. Richard Rodgers without Oscar concocted his own feeble lyric. He was said not to have liked “An Ordinary Couple.” I have message into the producer, ITV, asking why they kept it  in.  So far, no reply.

Music theater fans should find this Sound of Music a gem to treasure . It is by the far the closest I have seen to the original show, the one Variety in its out of town notice called “a sensational musical.”

HOW TO LIVE FOR A MOMENT WITHOUT JULIE ANDREWS:   So, for all of you fans of the film, here is my suggestion on how to give the stage version a decent chance:  Let go of the movie for a moment, allow yourself to inhabit the character of Maria as defined by Tointon.  You may learn to like her on her own.  The Captain, played splendidly well by Ovendon, is another new face to enjoy. The entire cast is essentially spot on.   Give the revived songs a chance.  You sill have the movie!  And Julie Andrews is still in it! And you now have the stage show, too.    

How luckily for us that Dick and Oscar's first and last musicals have been lovingly restored in the land where a stiff upper lip can sometimes produce a more uplifting experience. 


The book and lyrics for Showbiz David's Bette Davis musical, Red Camera Roll, will be published next year by Bear Manor Media.