Sunday, July 14, 2024

SUNDAY MORNING NOW: A Challenging New Day at the Greatest Show on Earth: Hyperactive Set Design and Feeble Direction Suck the Life out of an Ageless Delight

 revised 7.15.24

Acrobatic Circus Review
Ringling Bros / The Greatest Show on Earth
On You Tube at Columbus, OH, 8 months ago

Preface. I had imagined being lyfted out to the Oakland  Coliseum, right up to the arena.  No, I would have been dropped off at a gate on the edge of a parking lot along one of the town’s deadliest streets. No thank you.

Once, again, as with Vargas last year, I am left muddled in a dizzy dichotomy between the acts and the production. So, let us take them one at a time:

On balance, they are a sturdy, sufficiently accomplished  lot — when not hooked to lifelines, falling into nets, or grabbing hold of rigging between tricks. To my (jaded?) eyes, only a precious few rang my WOW bell.   Most of the action favors the customary staples: teeterboard, webs,  hand balancing, contortion,  juggling, flying trapeze, high wire, double wheel, Rola-bola, and the human canon.

The show lifts off now and then, and I wished there could have been more of the show-stopping mastery produced by two absolutely terrific risley acrobats. A+ in my book.  In fact, for me, the highlight of the program. 

Other notable high points include two criss-crossiing trapeze acts, which marks a refreshing interlude from the norm.  And there are two double wheels instead of one, offering a tad more tingle to what is regularly expected. These riders worked overtime.

In addition to the staples, show offers gaucho dancing and young bike-riding daredevils up and down ramps. 

At the top: America’s own Wesley Williams, who has a talent for being human, something this show could use a lot more of, scores big time with his sky high ride on a 60 foot unicycle. I felt a genuine thrill even though he was life-lined; without which, a crash landing over the audience could spell catastrophe.  His act has been split into parts performed at intervals. A shame, but the show benefits from his ingratiating recurring presence.  Indeed, what is lacking the most in this strange antiseptic comeback is a personality.

Where was the robot dog?  Perhaps the You Tube I watched was edited, but it appeared to be the whole show from start to finish.

A couple of kind of charming clowns take up little space inconsequentially.


As for Ringling’s over the top set – stay with me here --- I saw three hills (or platforms), roughly spaced as in the old three-ring layout. On and around them, the performers tend to look smaller and diminished, like ants lost in a maze of flashing light patterns that grab our attention, in effect dissipating the action. In effect, disrespecting the artist. Whatever was Kenneth Feld thinking?  Does he have so little faith in his talent pool which he claims to be world class?   Boooooooo!

On the  outer two ant hills of Ringling, other acts endeavor  to snare a little attention, one of them, a group jump-roping troupe that may go four-high.  I would love to have seen more of them.

Spectacle?  Dancers and hand clappers circle the arena periodically in an effort to rouse the audience, which can feel somewhat hollow and obligatory. 

A trend not worthy of the “Greatest show”–  The insidious invasion of mechanics are of no help here. These tell-tale safety wires can render the user a lazier, less skilled artist, no longer needing to rely on exacting technique in order to avoid a plunge. Thus, they now can get away with being sloppier, less tautly disciplined.  The performance suffers.

Music: An amorphous recorded soundscape with a cold  heavy beat left me in a fog.  Totally unmemorable.  This, from the Greatest Show on Earth?  This from a billionaire  circus owner?  

At the  very end of the performance, Wesley alone, in street clothes, comes running across the set -- a touching human image closing out a cold, impersonal enterprise.

All of the above notwithstanding, the crowd was large and responsive. For all we know, the show may be cleaning up, in which case look for more of the same to continue.  But why do I still see widespread hostility in Yelp Reviews, still  averaging 1-1/2 stars?  (Vargas is drawing 4).

Let me close with a recent Yelper from Brian, Willow Grove, PA, May 29:

 "Save your money. The American circus is officially dead. There is no Ringmaster. There are no clowns. There is no pageantry. There is no National Anthem. You cannot buy a pennant. There are no programs sold. They won't even say: "May All Your Days Be Circus Days." They lamely announce: "May All Your Days Be Ringling Days." This costs hundreds of dollars a ticket?"

 My Rating:

Acts B+

Production values: D

May all your days be better than this one.

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Sneak Peak: London Previews "Keep That Day Job!"

UPDATE 7.6.24 A glitch in production flow at the publisher is being rectified, and the book is now on its way to Amazon. I'm guessing, it should be out in around a week or so. Sorry for missing the fireworks!  I had an avalanche of visitors here on July 4th.

On the eve of its publication, UK showbiz reporter and critic Douglas McPherson takes a first look at the cover and contents.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

What the Circus Can Teach Broadway, Oh Really?

Updated: 6.20.24

Yes, an odd question -- in the form of a headline rolling down the  Covington chute a while back.  Questioned was posed in a Theater Mania interview with the show’s director, Jessica Stone.  So, have we here a big hit, I wondered.  So big that others may want to learn from it?  Even, dare I say, imitate it?   

The very assertion in the headline -- Jessica Stone on what the circus can teach Broadway ---  may have raised hackles among Broadway pros,  taken aback by the gall in its being raised.  Upon closer examination, seems the question was launched by the article’s writer, Zachary Stewart, in his asking Stone,  "What is something that you’ve learned a tremendous deal about in this process?"  Here’s the best I can extract from Stone’s underwhelming reply:
 “I’ve learned so much about rigging. .... You need to know that the person holding their arms out is going to catch you, and that can only be built through play, community , and trust.  That’s something I will always take with me.”
How to rig?  How to be sure you know your partner well enough to trust them?

But can Water teach Broadway how to compose better scores?  Better choreography?  Better scripting?

There is a fundamental difference between circus and theater. The one is mainly all about acrobatics and the daring-do of performers.  The other, about the human condition. And they don’t easily mix in equal measure.   The hit musical Barnum dwelled more in the human, with a socko score and a good enough story. Nobody talked up its token acts. If fact, I can’t remember any other than Jim Dale as Barnum walking a low wire.  Water’s acclaimed circus artistry -- cited by some as the reason to go -- may only add to the impression of a feeble story flailing about between – not songs, but  acts.

In fact, with the possible exception of Billy Rose's Jumbo, this may be the first musical to share the stage with top-line circus acts -- assuming  that they are that good.

Now with not a single Tony to its name, can Water for Elephants yet bring off a dark-horse victory and prove its haters wrong – half the notices were scathing.  Or will it’s luster fade away with the passing of another Tony Season?.  Something about the good notices it did draw (a critics pick from the Times) and glowing customer gush (possibly shilled) gives me a feeling it just might surprise them all.  But I wouldn’t bet on it.  In Theatre Mania's most recent weekly box office report, some shows played to 90% or more capacity.  Water was not one on them. 

Next on Midway Times Square?   Disney has been workshopping a musical based on the Hugh Jackman movie, The Greatest Showman. They might have better luck. The movie has a score that dazzles, especially younger ears, and circus performing is incidental.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Chapter Titles For My New Book Revealed

 Coming from BearManor Media on July 4th


Not Born in a Trunk

On Stage in an Orange Crate 

The Sink in My Salad 

Antenna Acrobat to Cash Man at the People’s Window 
Be A Clown, Be a Sledgehammer 

Furniture, Dogs, and the Moon on Credit 

Broadway Bound at College 

Park Avenue Calls

Why, You Don’t Look Like a Circus Press Agent to Me!  

No, I Don’t Give Private Lessons for Roller Derby 
Pitching Elephants to ABC from a Payphone
Cast and Framed for Restroom Duty 

Clerking for Egg Heads and Hard Hats 

 File Me Out of This Flop 

 Hollywood Takes on Ringling

Dream Boss from Central Casting 
 Just Another Day in Quake City 
 Law Land Follies  

Still Merrily Stranded Out of Town

Curtains Rise, Curtains Fall

Sunday, May 26, 2024

A True Trapeze Queen Shamefully Ignored By History


 Update, 5/28

Our winner had checked in!  He posted under The Magic Guys, but somehow, his full message did not come through.  His answers was:

Latvian aerialist Lena Jourdan, of the Flying Jordans

Congrats, Magic Guys!

End of update. 

Still ignored by writers and historians who should know better: Lena Jordan, not Ernest Clarke, was the first flyer to turn a triple somersault on the trapeze.  Most sources place the feat on Jordan Bros. Circus in Australia, 1897. But according to the Guinness Book of Records, Jordan actually turned the first triple in New York city with the Flying Jordans, an American troupe, in 1896, at Koster & Bial's Theatre 

Not so fast, says Wikipedia, claiming that the New York record has not been officially recognized. Rather,  In May 1897, Jordan, aged 16, "became the first recorded person to perform a triple somersault during a routine in Sydney, Australia."

The Circus Ring of Fame in Sarasota propounded the myth by ignoring  Jordan altogether, in order to give  Antoinette Concello credit for first female to turn the triple. 

How does the Circus Historical Society check in on this?  I once followed a thread on their history message board, all the way to a contributor who confirmed that, indeed, the honor goes to Jordan. 

Sunday, May 19, 2024

SUNDAY MORNING NOW, IMMERSIVELY YOURS: Tornadoes Topple Tops ... Daring Dames Dare Globes of Death ... Garden Goes Nuclear, Vegas Goes Artsy ...

     OLD CAN BE NEW AGAIN: Take a tent fainting under nature’s wrath, and you may have a tour suddenly gone down with a vengeance. That would be our visiting tenter from Germany, Great Bavarian Circus, whose big top got hammered to shreds by a tornado thundering across the East Coast.  Sad sight, the party over almost before it began. They came here to share, and they have my deepest sympathy. 

     ANOTHER TENT IN SHAMBLES is Florida State University’s Flying High Circus. “It was jarring to see it all go down in that manner,” told director Chas Mathes to the Tallahassee Democrat. Not just one, or two, but three EF-2 tornados. Back to Italy goes FSU, needing a replacement top from the land that created (or did they?) those fantastically shaped modern day Scheherazade tents.  Maybe the passionate Italians will give FSU a courtesy discount.  Fly on and Higher, Flying High! 

     TUNE UP YOUR GIRLY GRIT, Brit gals!  Crcuses are looking for you.  It’s happening across the Big Pond, reports our London informant on the go, Douglas McPherson, in The Stage. He profiles the founder of Ireland’s Daring Dames Festival, Dea Birkett.  Now in its third year, her show  fosters an All-Female Cast. While, over at Big Kid Circus (love that name), they’re touting  “Europe's first all-female Globe of Death motorcycle riders,”  the Kirilova Sisters trio.  And just when I was hoping this monster bore of a stunt would blast its way into infinity’s graveyard.  Here’s what I’d relish: Put a pair of high-stepping distaff daredevils teasing trouble on the double wheel.  How’s that for a ballyhoo?     

     DAMES ON FLAMES: These equity-pandering innovators are said to be aimed at challenging gender stereotypes in the ring.  Okay, I’m usually ill at ease with such a hollow premise, except that here, McPherson quotes strong woman, Aoife Raleigh,  knocking down a shamefully biased account peddled for years by hard core feminists headquartered in San Francisco:  “There’s always been a space in the circus where women can be physical.” 

       RECALLING THE ROLE of women in big tops,  Douglas spins magic describing Patty Asltey, wife of modern day circus founder,  Philip, riding on horseback around the ring “with her hands gloved in a swarm of living bees!”

     THEY'VE WALKED HIGH WIRES for years, swung free and high, posed on pachyderms, danced over horses.  For years.  Except that ... Except that what? Well, for starters, did they ever climb the Chinese poles or –  LOVE this one – serve as CATCHER on the flying trapeze?  Those are among the skills our new-line big top disputers are aiming to take on ....  It’s a novelty sure to tickle a jaded public that may be restless for something beyond the current, increasingly predictable staples.

The gang was all there: Kiyome Hara, Chester Cable, Michelle Wiertalla, Wini McKay, Alex Smith, and Betty Smith.

      GOING NUCLEAR AT GARDEN BROS., as reported by a tickled Alex Smith, sounds like a rousing good party  in a semi-brawling concession pit. That is, a little messy and rowdy and more like old  Barnum than new Cirque. Says our man on the lot:  “They’re not PC including a dog act, World’s smallest man ... and they're full of acts I'm unfamiliar with." Now, that I like -- a lot.  "I can tell you already it’s noisy with vendors and uncontrolled audience, but then I guess it is NUCLEAR” Brilliant deduction, Alex!  For the first time, I actually have a yen to take in this easy-to-knock enterprise.

     THERE'S A RESTLESS PUBLIC out there that wants circus, but wants it against safe and stale formats.  Wants a little more, dare I see, gruff and wild? Claims Alex, “They packed them in a straw house,”and that ads up to  2,185 people.  If you dig deeper into the Yelp two-star average reviews, you may find reason to go see for yourself.  Even in a mess, sometimes you can spot genuine quality.


       MAKING CIRCUS ART IN SIN CITY -- MAYBE:  Vegas to host the first International Circus Festival, slated for Nov. 1 - 10, organized by trapeze flyer Renato Fernandes,  seen above, who enjoys credit for the first in history to turn a Double Twisting Layout and Half.  Far from the rowdy Garden party, Renato is burning to produce a  “new spectacle that transcends borders, celebrates diversity, and enriches communities”  Somebody please give me a  break!  Hasn’t circus been naturally doing this for centuries?  

      BUT GOING DEEPER  into the website, this I nearly missed: This project will only be funded if it reaches its [funding] goal by Wed, June 12 2024 12:00 PM PDT

      ONTO THE MORE CONCRETE "IMMERSIVE," the latest new word, which Renato drops and which the Felds started floating on their last show that dared call itself a circus — the one that came crashing down in 2017.  Back at it without “circus” in the tile, heck, if  New Ringling really wants to maximize such all-encompassing encounters, I’d suggest putting the audience in the ring, and running the show around and over it.  And maybe into it.  Oh, what a perverse new spectacle, just in time to be rendered more chillingly harmless when robots in spangles arrive.

Know what? I am already feeling homesick for the Garden jam. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Be The First to Answer the Next Big Question, and Win a Free Copy of My New Book, Keep That Day Job!

 I will post it here at 6 pm PDT, on Sunday May 19

It may be too easy to answer, so I'd suggest you pounce the moment the posting hits.

And remember, you must give a name, either your own or a made-up one.  All answers will NOT be posted.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

A Young Star Rises in a Production True to the Original, and the Real Pal Joey Lives Again

 Just ended at the Altarena Playhouse in Alameda, CA

 Stage Review: Pal Joey

The great joy and payoff in little theater (Community, if you must) is that you will discover great talents that you can easily imagine handling their parts on the boards of Broadway.  And the vast majority of them will never make it there, if even they try.

At 1409 High Street  in charming Alameda, I am, case in point,  talking about a young actor named Nico Jaochico, cast in the role of Joey Evans.  Did I see a star rising at 1409?  This guy, on the hefty side and yet remarkably light on his dancing feet, won me over with his ingratiating showmanship and powerful vocals, playing the part in a production that stays  true to the original 1940 show — how revolutionary!  
Gene Kelly originated the role in the daring-for-its time Rodgers & Hart work, and yet I’m not so sure that I would have liked Kelly more than Nico.  Okay, for dancing, yes.  But as for character?  You see, our charmer-in-chief  has a way of widening has face to practically reach all three sides of Altarena’s three quarter round audience – and sending out a sly glint of spoofery in his eyes. As if to say, let’s not take this too seriously, but kick it around a little and have some fun, okay?  Such that, I ended up rooting more for the actor than the character.  In a Pal Joey world, that’s a good thing.  

In the role, Nico as Joey begins by pitching his  borderline M.C. talents to a small south end Chicago club owner, Mike Spears, played here by Charles Evans in a manner weak on character, which gets things off on a wobbly start. But soon enough, the sparks will fly.  Joey briefly romances lovely Linda English with the score’s one tender song, I could Write a Book; and from there, advances onto Vera Simpson’s bank account. 

She, a jaded, technically married dame from upper society,  sets Joey up with his own night club, and is rewarded with his company, leaving her blissfully “bewitched, bothered, and bewildered ... horizontally speaking, he’s at his very best.” But the spell has a short expiration date. Never have I  heard the song sung so compellingly as it was  here  by the perfectly cast Maria Mikeyenko.

In Act II,  a riotously amusing mobster, essayed to the hilt by Don Kolodny, moves in to engineer a bribe. They’ll ask Vera for lots of money, and if she says no, tip off her hubby to the affair – now languishing on a stale mattress that no longer squeaks sweetly. 

Romance, finis
Your chance, finis
Those ants that invaded your pants, finis

In the end, all of these morally-challenged rascals will go their separate ways.  Funny, I felt a rare affection and sadness for them all. The party was over.  Only was virtuous Linda Evans still fostering a good feeling and face for Joey.  But he is left alone.

The score is a treasure, loaded with high energy songs that pop the champagne on aberrant sophistication.  Had there not been a Joey
would there have been a Chicago?   When  Pal Joey opened in 1940, it was remembered by Richard Rodgers for leaving the audience half raving, half in shock. "Bewitched" was banned from the airwaves for a time.  A musical that vulgar?  Yes, The critics loved it. 

Truth is, it was never close to a major hit drawing large sustaining crowds.  The original production lasted nearly a year,  the much admired 1952 revival a few months longer.  Three since then have all begged for customers, hanging on from one week to a few months.  All come to town peddling “new” scripts that only muck up an essentially naughty and uncomplicated  little romp.

How lucky I was to have seen THIS particular romp.

Credit the smartly faithful direction of Laura Morgan staying true to the original book, with rare exceptions: The song, “I’m Talkin’ to my Pal,” was cut before the show opened in New York. And Altarena dropped a song that did make it all the way to opening night. "Happy Hunting."

Any qualms? Pacing sometimes errs in drawn out and/or stagey set changes.  I was so enthralled with the expedience, I may have overlooked other flaws.

The cast fairly bubbles, with sprightly dancer Jarusha Ariel playing Gladys in the lead. Boffo!    A six piece band, with outstanding musical direction by pianist Armando Fox, excels to the finish line.  I sat there mesmerized by the raw brilliance of those witty and worldly songs.  More musicals, please, Altarena!

The only other stage Joey I can compare this one to, albeit via You Tube, was a  morose, creaky revival in 2008, enslaved in yet another lugubrious new libretto, at the Roundabout in New York. "I
n mourning for its own lifelessness," reviewed The New York Times. It clucked on for ten listless weeks. I had to force myself to sit through the gloomy affair, more  reason to cherish Altarena’s gift. The fidelity of its staging must mark  a high point in Bay Area musical theater history.

Little theater can be very big.


Monday, April 29, 2024

My New Book --- Keep That Day Job! How to Enjoy Chasing Showbiz Without Going Mad -- Due Out the Fourth of July

There it is, now on its way.  Stay tuned for another mind-boggling quiz!    

I'm now going over the proofs from my publisher, Bear Manor Media, digging into the cracks between words for little bugs -- a comma missing, a period in the wrong place. Jumbled sentences. And that word I'm still not sure about. Checking out photo placements. there are 74 images in all, representing a fraction of the multitude of jobs covered. Total 50.

My last chance to revise. Now or never!