Monday, July 30, 2007

Jango Edwards Highlights Italian Clown & Acro Festival

The new FUNAMBOLIKA was conceived by Raffaele De Ritis,

Legendary icon Jango Edwards (seen here, right, with partner Peter Ercolano) moved from the States to Europe in the early 70s and founded an avant-garde school of clowning.

Also featured at the three-day bash was traditionalist David Larible and an international mix of acrobats from the circus school of Torino.

[photo by Andrea Straccini]

Friday, July 27, 2007

Hairspray on Screen: Movie Musicals Were Once This Good

Movie Review

After we saw Singing in the Rain when it came to Santa Rosa in the fifties, on our way home my sister Kathy literally danced down near-vacant Santa Rosa Avenue while my enchanted mom hummed along. Such was the effect a film could have on one during the golden age of movie musicals.

Something happened that silenced the magic. Call it the sixties. Rock music in its primitive form had not yet been harnessed to serve dramatic narrative. And a new generation decided not to patronize characters suddenly “bursting into song.” In recent years, yet more good and earnest attempts to revive the screen musical have given us the ambitious if belabored Chicago and the simply morose, overly long Dreamgirls.

At last, a new day is here. I have just witnessed a rebirth of the older fashioned movie musical, and it is called Hairspray. What a transcendent experience, it felt as if I were back in the ‘50s merely watching a recent Broadway hit turned into the kind of movie musical that once sent us out of the theatre on a high. In fact, compared to the national touring company of Hairspray, which left me only mildly impressed, the movie is almost every step of the way a superior achievement. From cast to choreography, from camera angles to clever juxtapositions not possible on stage, Hairspray has it. Has there ever been a movie musical that improved on the Broadway show?

Not that Hairspray is a perfect work. A few sequences drag a bit, but always what follows is so good, you are soon enough back with the plan, and it’s a major blast. This musical not only amuses, it also inspires. After all, we are talking the early-days of the civil rights era. Young overweight white girl Tracy, played infectiously by Nikki Blonsky, is smitten with black music and puts her courage on the line to join a protest calling for the integration of a local teenage rock and roll tv show.

The marvel of Hairspray, which may be a put off to some, is that it is so old fashioned in construction. And that’s the trade off we must accept. In order for its numerous highlights to shine, they need the older-fashioned structure to give them life. Director-choreographer Adam Shankman deserves an academy award for merging so many elements into a cinematic joy.

The casting is brilliant. No, make that inspired. Michelle Pfeiffer, as a wickedly conniving TV station manger out to advance the career of her not-talented daughter, is endlessly entertaining. Christopher Walken as Wilbur, Tracy’s dad, is an absolute treasure as the thin husband to his overly fat wife, Edna. Which brings us to the movie’s major surprise — the flat-out sensational performance turned in by John Travolta playing Edna. Unlike too many campy New York drag queens, Travolta plays the role realistically, and he infuses his (excuse me “her”) character with genuine charm and warmth. He dances, too, and at the show I attended here in Oakland, he drew applause. In fact, he was the obvious favorite.

What Hairspray has in its favor is a “rock” score, however you wish to characterize the sort of rock it is. It can engage today’s younger audiences like the songs of golden age musicals can not. Time moves on, doesn’t it. Maybe a little too long, maybe a little plodding here and there, still, Hairspray’s assets are in the spades, and they are likely to set this movie apart as one for the ages. Academy Awards? Put the name of John Travolta at the top of the list.

[photo above: John Travolta, left, and Nikki Blonsky]


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Big Apple Circus's Sky-Shy 30th Promises Fumagalli's U.S. Debut, Brit Ringmistress, Kovgar Return, Michele Barette Direction.

Paul Binder and Michael Christensen premiere their 30th Anni Edition, dubbed Celebrate!, on September 20 at Dulles Town Center in Virginia. A month later, the circus uncorks its annual 3-month run at New York’s Lincoln Center. Rob Slowik will again direct Big Apple’s band, drawing upon original scoring created by Broadway’s Michael Valenti.

Looking over a press release forwarded to me by Don Covington, new offerings include, from Ireland, the Huesca Brothers on Risley; and Italy's "clown prince of the world" Fumagalli, cutting up the sawdust with Daris, his "brother-in-hilarity." If Fumagalli lives up to his billing, Big Apple should shine for landing the jester's American debut.

Celebrate! draws heavily on returnees from previous seasons. Among them, Switzerland’s Kris Cremo, touted "the finest solo juggler alive," is back after a 12-year absence. China’s slack-wire exponent Cong Tian also encores, as do canines and cats prepped and paced by Russia’s Irina Markova. Andrey Kovgar's teeterboard titans are another star attraction that's been revived, "by popular demand," per the release. Troupe has also added a jump roping display, and since they're Russian and innovative, the chances are good that sparks will fly.

Program looks shy on the sky-side, what with a single aerial turn to be supplied by company members. Gifted young equilibrist Christian Atayde Stoniev, recently booted off America’s Got Talent, will no doubt score better with a circus that does have talent. Barry Lubin, who serves also as a creative consultant, continues apace as Grandma.

Hosting the festivities will be England's ringmistress, Carrie Harvey, from the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome.


On paper, the complete lineup looks like a campaign of intriguing elements that might exceed the sum of its parts -- even with little apparent power in the air. Director Michele Barette did the show’s 2004 opus Picturesque, which I critique in my forthcoming Fall of the Big Top.

By the way, Barette graciously granted me an interview for the book; he appeared as Cirque Du Soleil’s ringmaster when the show exploded on the world stage down in Los Angeles in 1987. Barette serves as my only first-hand observer from the Cirque side of that historic date.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Showbiz for Dummies: Let’s Face the Music

Consider me your Dummy-in-Chief. I’m catching up here on the Boob Tube Midway, where American dreamers of all ilk from troubadours to inventors (yes, inventors) are testing their talents against the judges. Each judging panel comes with the obligatory Simon Cowell Brit snit clone. What a blast.

America’s got gall! Notice how the real stars are the judges themselves, grimacing and glaring, glancing away or holding flat noncommittal faces while contestants stand before them, about to be lionized or guillotined. We ride their every facial tick like a carnival ticket. We wait for Big Buzzers to go off, Red Lights to flash — OUT, damn Dummies, OUT! It’s all in the script, public humiliation is a spectator sport.

Dummy Memo to desperate circus owners looking for a hook: Book Kevin James, a nerdy illusionist who delivers super cool tricks, even if he works the kind of turn that Brit snit Piers Morgan sneeringly calls "a circus act." Ssssss! ... Tis the season to be overweight. The "Glamazons" are a female foursome of hefty hoofers who got a "yes" from the critics. I preferred the -- what's the pc word for "fat"? -- young man (Kate Smith’s grandson?) who sang his heart out, then was encouraged by his evil evaluators to share teary-eyed feelings about his late grandmother before they royally dumped him. Naive dummies wonder why. Smug dummies know why: Blood letting sells.

Dummies on Broadway no longer have to take it like a kid. The Mouse has fallen off two marquees marked Beauty and Tarzan. Mature dummies refuse to whistle Lion King tunes while they work.

No wonder the Tony Awards telecast is a ratings fiasco. Broadway’s newest CDs are not turning ears, says the L.A. Times. Let the Tony nominees henceforth compete before a panel of "realty" judges, same as amateurs do! Let Simon and his like dish out verdicts. "I just don’t buy your pile of tuneless poop..."

Onto the movies: A Dummy needs to learn (I tell my self over and over again) that oldest is not always goldest. Too many "Turner Classic Movies"should have been left on the cutting room floors. Mature Dummies embrace, guilt free, modern-day classics like Michael Moore’s powerful Sicko, a brilliant work of cinematic truth — or deception —bearing, so say its critics, falsehoods to promote universal health carry in the U.S. What is a good dummy to make of this all? Yours humbly chooses compassionate health care for all over the sinister medical-pharmaceutical-insurance-industrial complex, thank you, Ike. (By the way, your Dummy-in-Residence predicts that Hairspray will be the biggest movie musical hit in years.)

Circus reviewing for Dummies 1A. Never place backyard jackpotting over serious critiquing. Blackboard illustration: How would I fare at Circus Vargas were I to favor Baraboo Barb, who has many friends on the show and urges me to hug half of them on her behalf? Matriculating Dummies beware: Snitty Brit reviews (I plead guilty) are not written in the heat of group hugs -- or gropes.

Lastly, true dummies sometimes discover diamonds in the mush. Hours later, here I am, back from the TCM I just dissed, floating on clouds formed by Fred and Ginger in Irving Berlin’s languid Follow the Fleet. Blame it on five fabulous end minutes, a masterpiece in song and dance about embracing life while it embraces you. Fred is making one more appeal to win back Ginger ...before it’s too late ...

There may be trouble ahead,
but while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance,
lets face the music and dance...

Soon, we’ll be without the moon,
Singing a different tune and then...

And then. Yes, let’s face the music and dance. And dream. And invent. And fall on our big fat or skinny faces. And blog.

Monday, July 16, 2007

SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: Kelly-Miller Update: Fire Destroys Truck ... Boffo Biz Rules ... North II, High on Ownership, Due to Rejoin Show for 2008 Production Talks ...

Let’s first clear the smoke away. Climbing up a long steep grade, a Kelly-Miller sleeper pulling a seat wagon caught fire and was totally destroyed. Occupants Michael Harber (the show’s musical director) and K-M school teacher David Schwartz came out of it okay ...On went the show ...

Tomorrow’s Promise Rising: Due in on July 30 is owner John Ringling North II, buzzing with ideas for next season’s tour. "He has some definite plans,." reports show manager Jim Royal. Next year’s route is to be hashed out. Also slated for revamping is their customer-unfriendly website. And North II Plans to spend more days on the lot next year....

"He is thoroughly enjoying his new role as circus owner," reports Royal. That includes being a hands-on sort of guy. The staff and fans are finding John Ringling North’s nephew to be down to earth, friendly, accessible, and even amusing. ‘He has a very positive outlook," says Royal, "and a great sense of humor." Upon hearing of the truck fire, North’s first concern was for the welfare of Harber and Schwartz. Get them into the "Jomar," he said. Get their damaged belongings replaced ...

The animals are also getting a warm shoulder from their new big top boss.. When the show's expecting llama miscarriaged, North II and wife Shirley, ranchers in Ireland, administered anti-biotic injections ... Now, if Kelly-Miller needs a vet dent, they might call up Baraboo’s kindly retired dentist, Bob Dewel. He’s an all-purpose kind of guy ... In fact, he's waiting back there in the wings to make a cameo ...

Ringmaster and performance director John Moss has been tinkering with the program. Lights have been upgraded, a new sound system purchased.. All good signs of corporate health, kids...

During North’s ten-day visit, he will travel with the circus to Kelly’s Island. The circus goes there annually via ferry. Islanders are dockside, waiting full of cheer. Full houses are the rule...

America’s newest circus owner is on the phone with Royal several times a week. He’s got sawdust in his blood if you ask me ....So far, so good?


Big Top Add-Ons: "I am proud to be one of the three people who read your biog," e-mails one of my staunch visitors. And, I have a fourth! That would be above-mentioned Bob of Baraboo, who wishes to turn my trio of fans into a quartet of, what, groupies? ... I feel their incessant push; gosh, this attention will kill me ... Summer is a bizzy time for Bob: He conducts daily tours at the Al Ringling Theatre, favors the lucky with his superb keyboard pipe organ recitals, gives speeches about town and hosts impromptu family reunions... Summer has been too slow for our Bob, who longs for full houses. He did get something of a lift when fifty people showed up for "the tour." ... Later on, though, around midnight, Harry Potter on the big screen was playing to four times that many ...

Let’s see, Bob, you play keyboard and you can drill? Do llamas ever need root canals?

First posted July 16, 2007 / first year posting

Thursday, July 12, 2007

An Editor Asks: “What is ‘spec’ ... And I wonder, Did Al Ringling really Kill a Farmer for Abusing a Horse? ...

... and if I print it, will they kill me???

Here I am, blurry from reading through my Fall of the Big Top edited manuscript, fact checking, answering an editor’s meticulous queries ... scrambling through notes to support, hitting the web to nail URL addresses requested....

Last chance to pull stuff that could leave me the laughing stock of Spangleland. Were did I read that Al Ringling broke away to start up his own one-ring mud show and was pulled back by the brothers? Not North. Not Plowden ... Not Apps ... Check Chapin May. Yes, there it is! ... Keep it in....

"Al is secretly remembered for having killed a farmer..." Dare I leave THAT in? ... I swear I read it somewhere, but nobody will confirm. Too chancy. Drop it NOW or the next time I set foot in Baraboo, I risk house arrest — kindly retired dentist Bob might go after me with a root canal drill...

....Bill Taggart rode a horse in spec. The editor wonders, what is spec. Okay, make it "circus spectacles". Clarity they want. ... Chimera just closed, how to alter. What’s the central point here? Truncate and end with, "He may find that reinstating the animals will attract larger crowds." Let’s pray for Jim, but don’t put that in...

I could swear that UniverSoul claims to be the first black-owned circus in the country, which is false. Search the files. Look for the Los Angeles Times story. There is. Where, where....first African American, key words — Oh **!!xx**!!! How close I came to falling off the wire --- first blacked owned circus in a century ... Wallendas, I need help!

How to identify all four in the Gaona Gold Clown award photo. Tito did not answer e-mail seeking identities. Maybe he’s sulking because I’m not using his favorite — of himself, solo. Send a copy to Ken Dodd; he said he’ll take a look ...

Did North really make the entire funeral train trip to Sarasota in 1956 in his pajamas. Let go of it, CUT ... "Ready or Not" — "a fabulous procession of Asian acrobats". Stop overworking "fabulous." Change to "dashing", and while you’re at it, try shaking your adjectives addiction and going clean.

Time is pressing, and the presses are timing. My semi-last chance to clean up, back off, restate, revise or repent ... Miguel threw the quad in "a speeding second"? Risky. Change to "four lightening fast revolutions." Once in print, I can’t go back.

... Must hurry. Two of my three readers are clamoring for the Kelly Miller stuff. One of them is accusing me of flaunting a "Royal attitude."

Barbette's "wild sense of humor." Hmm. Wild used too much. Make it "rare." Or ... "medium rare"?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bitty Big Top Bits ... Let’s Take What Little Comes Our Way, Kids...

As some of you may know (well, all three of you out there who read this biog.), once upon a time, thus it would appear, I was Royally favored by Kelly-Miller’s new big top boss. Now, Royally ignored. No problem ... I’ve trod this sod many times before, and I’m still belligerently doing it my way. Yeah, Frank, I hear you! .... Anyway, nice to hear from Big Bertha Retro Booster Craig Johnson of having e-mailed the new John Ringling North II produced Kelly Miller Circus for dates near his PA home, and getting, in return, a "very professional reply."

Wonders, Craig, would 150 miles to Warren, PA "be worth the trip if JRN II would be on the lot? Your thoughts?"

A no-brainer, Craig. With or without a Ringling icon on the lot, GO! Hop a bus, a train, a skateboard, rig up a wagon or get out your new hydro-whatever and savor a super-rare slice of history while it lasts ... All together now, let’s all dream that North the Sequel has the real stuff, can stick it out and power into Season Two with maturing gusto ... He was "reported" to have dubbed his favorite act, contortionist Sai Zhang "the eighth wonder of the world." How flairful; the man’s inner Ringling must be tingling ...

In a Covington Flash: Best seller novel Water for Elephants has been optioned for a flick by the producer of The Bourne Identify. Set in the depression era ... Speaking outside the tent, I am, as I write this, listening to some fresh modern rock from Their Space that invaded my space via a random search. It’s cool for the moment ....

What was once cool: Don of Covington also answers my earlier question: Did Maestro Evans ever play my favorite big cage music, the Duke’s "Caravan?" Yes, he did, once for gracious Charlie Bauman’s cage act under the hard tops. And at least once under the big top ...

Where is Sage? Anybody seen him? Must be fixing busted tilt-a- whirls, it’s the carnie thing.

... Circus Vargas and Me: They are headed for San Diego and, if my cybersleuthing is right, for Long Beach in October. Perfect month for a tent show in the shadows of the docked Queen Mary .... Every time a new date appears on the winning Vargas site, I take heart. Wouldn't it be heavenly if their performance is as fine as their site...

About those mysterious Ringling-Barnum Circus Archives in Baraboo, word from sources on high suggests another grand effort to make them a permanent and OPEN part of the collection is seriously underway (Go, Freese & Foley!). I’ll have more on this, much more, in due time. Practicing journalism (only reluctantly when I have to), is a messy business that hurts feelings and raises dire suspicions .... I’m trying to gather as many salient facts as I can before I wax stupid.

Lost in the music: Another inspired Merle Evans’ pairing of circus action and scoring: A trio of single trap artists performing to "Poinsettia." Over that, I'll dream ...

LATE BREAKING FLASH: A massive e-mail full of goodies just received from Jim Royal ... I’ll share with you soon ... So, I guess it’s okay to keep doing it my way.

And that’s a mini wrap.

First posted July 11, 2007


Friday, July 06, 2007

SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: Mid-Season Musings: The Tents Tremble, My Paranoia Rises ...

Lay ‘em out, get ‘em in the air and pray they stand ... So far, new Clyde Beatty Circus gone in weeks ... Chimera shuttered July 2 ... How many more to heaven in ‘07? ... I keep checking the Circus Vargas website, and still a Long Beach date hinted at by the show’s evasive pr dept. does not appear... Another e-mail from yours skeptical to Vargas vague. And in return, "We will be going to Long Beach."

Pardon my paranoia, but I entered this crazy biz during another iffy period fraught with turmoil, oh, back around ‘55, only a few trembling weeks after the Big One stood abandoned on a St. Paul lot, the work force having walked off before the night show began in the wake of mass management firings. A feisty Noyelles Burkhart charged onto the scene, had the respect to rally the roustabouts, and got the show back onto the train. Thank you, Mr. Burkhart, for playing God that ominous night. I got to see the Greatest Show on Earth and all of its fifty five elephants perform in Richmond, California under majestic blue canvas ...

The next year, Pittsburgh happened. Killer seasons come and go.‘38 was another midway-crusher, six of the eight tenters that fell, gone forever. Pickle Family Circus founder Larry Pisoni has his own Pittsburgh years later, and the erratically experimental Cliff Vargas, had he lived long enough, might have, too ...

Present tense perplexities: Nice to see on Pat Cashin’s blog a photo of John Ringling North II paying a June visit to his own new toy — Kelly Miller, somewhere en route; was there ever a show more secretive about its play dates? Let’s hope North found greenbacks in the kitty, not IOUs. Once, I was Jim Royally favored when I e-mailed for updates. Now I am royally ignored. Still, I offer you what Royal offered me a few months back, his actual lineup:

Exploding applause meter with Raul "Tony" Oliveres; Charivari; Sun Acrobatic Troupe on the Chinese poles; Jennifer Walker’s Dog & Pony Revue; Rosales Family on perch poles; Sun Acrobatics on Diving Bungee; Laura Herriott's Animal Carousel; Tony's Toy Box to Life; Wan Hong hat juggling; Carmen Portugal, single trap. INTERMISSION. Chinese Lion Dance; Rosales Wheel of Destiny; Tony's potato head; Contortionist Sai Zhang; Jennifer Nichole on cloud swing with four North Starlets; Juggler Brett Michael; Murray Family elephants; Hoop diving by the Sun Acrobatic Troupe; Finale ... On paper, looks breezily balanced ...

Train pulling out! Consider this shortie a water stop on a red hot summer day. By the way, I skipped the Caballero canvas out there in lovely east Oakland by the freeway named Nimitz. Not worth trekking through a maze of urban riff raff to a tent that might or might not open for biz at 3 p.m. How like today's state of the little tops ... At least, for now, this I know: "We will be going to Long Beach."

And that’s a Vargas wrap.

First posted July 6, 2007

Monday, July 02, 2007

On Broadway, Disney’s Magic Disappears ...

I’ve never bought into all the Disney hype. Beauty and the Beast has a great score and a poignant tale to tell, but buried under a penny arcade of production blitz. After a long and hugely successful run, it bows out in July ... The critically acclaimed Lion King works okay, I guess, energized or enervated (whichever you prefer) with serviceably pedestrian songs composed by an international panel of musicians engaged to assure wide cultural diversify. Boring. King was obviously designed for the world market, and its touring productions are making millions ... Aida, Disney’s third entry on the Great White Way, is just plain awful, a limping turkey bearing a few sparkly things (a few decent Elton John tunes, some funky dances and those distracting costumes). It lasted four amazing years ... Then came Disney’s fourth attempt to fool the masses, a brainless spectacle (I did not see) called Tarzan. Even the Disney promo machine could not overcome scathing reviews and no Tonys. And after only a year on Broadway, Tarzan is now about to be off Broadway. Must have lost millions; they won’t say how much — I’d guess 6 to 8.

No producer can bat a thousand, although for a while Disney looked supernaturally adept at defying the odds. Broadway king David Merrick ran out of David Merrickles. Brit impresario Cameron Mackintosh hasn’t dazzled Gotham since, was it last century’s Miss Saigon? (Desperate for a comeback, the fiercely independent Mackintosh teamed up with Disney to mount the current hit Marry Poppins.) Aida fooled Disney into thinking that whatever it does, its fans will come. Tarzan proved otherwise ... Now that Mickey Mouse is down, time to ask, is there a Merrick in the house?