Friday, November 30, 2007

Cirque du Suicide? ... Reviews are Tepid to Scathing ... Only Variety Likes

Has the Montreal monster fallen on its precious face? Cirque du Soleil's Wintuk just opened at the theatre in Madison Square Garden. Will New Yorkers who are not falling for a high-tech snow job close it down sooner than planned? Can the kiddies turn it into a critic-proof hit? Other than a positive nod (with telling reservations) from Variety, a blast of discontent, so far, from critics to consumers does not look promising for a New York conquest. Check this out:

From the New York Times today: "oddly downbeat and humorless."

From the New York Daily News: "...this is Cirque du So What."

From "In the great history of Cirque du Soleil, one hopes that Wintuk will be a short, unhappy chapter, soon forgotten."

The more reviews, both pro and consumer, that I come across, the more bleak it looks. Variety is either very savvy to a crowd pleaser not yet seen by others -- "Happily for all, it's a good one ... a big winner for all concerned" -- or way way off base on this one.

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Loosening up, Cirque du Soleil Flirts with the Power of True Circus

This first appeared on November 30, 2007. If Blogger stats don't lie, it is by far the most viewed page on this blog.
Circus Review: Kooza

San Francisco, November 19 at 4 p.m. $55.00 to $210.00 top.

To follow the phenomenal success of Cirque du Soleil is to wonder how long it can last and what changes it might be willing to make in the years ahead to stay in the black. The good news here is that Kooza, Guy Laliberte’s latest touring show, takes a few giant leaps backwards in time to a more authentic big top experience. May we say goodbye for good, Corteo? I can’t recall a previous edition of Cirque as powerful as this one is in its redemptive second half.

Getting there takes a little time and patience. The gorgeous tent itself remains a temple of heightened atmosphere and mystery. During come-in, a delightfully wacky trio of older fashioned character clowns (stress character) led by Canadian Gordon White are fun to watch. They will specialize at extended intervals throughout the program in a line of slapstick and toilet humor that can seem as much filler as worthy comedic invention. And their ring time adds to the impression of a variety show with circus acts rather than a cirque du ballet. This comes as something of a promising relief.

Cirque’s stated aim in this newest touring unit (no proper Cirque will dare leave home without one) has something to do with The Innocent, a “naive but charming clown striving to find his place in the world” and the exploration of “fear, identity, recognition and power.” I read that in the program, but from the show itself, what I remember the most were a handful of gifted performers who thrilled me — as they obviously they did everybody else in the near-full house — doing things that trump all such pretentious rhetoric.

The opening segments bear familiar Cirque markings --- misty allusions to another world being reached, ensemble choreography, the use of mechanics and the sketchy maneuvers of those who use them (rolling globes and a single trap aerialist). And you wonder, has nothing much changed in the Montreal mind set? A couple of acts ahead, it most certainly has. Enter a troupe of high wire daredevils who break through the veneer with dashing realism, working on two wires, one above the other. They are from Columbia and Spain — Flouber Sanchez (Pinpon) and the brothers Dominguez — Roberto Quiros, Angel Quiros, Vicente Quiros and Angel Villarejo. Together, they generate real excitement dancing and cavorting aloft. A net is efficiently extended below them, and that’s the commendable way to add safety. Our wire walkers proceed with balancing poles to execute a perfect three-man pyramid on two bicycles. Thus, they deliver Cirque du Soleil from its chronic deference to hard hats and practice mechanics. Can Laliberte break the habit? Evidently so. I told you there is good news here.

Really, to be honest, up until the wire guys come on just before intermission, not a lot has happened. And I found myself wondering, will that be all that there is to be?

Then came the second half, delivering a pair of absolutely sensational history-making performances, one a drop-dead thriller in the air, the other, a riveting display of juggling genius the likes of which you have probably never before seen. Go there to see it.

The thriller: Two guys from Colombia (Is Colombia becoming the world center of circus thrills?) named Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza who work a double wheel of death in the most recklessly accomplished fashion. I have never ever seen this rig exploited so dangerously and with such gut-grabbing bravado. Zapata and Loaiza are outrageously daring. Stars. Stars. Stars. May I repeat their names — Zapata and Loaiza. They had the crowd gasping like roller coaster fanatics. Remember the word spine-tingling? Here it applies.

Second highpoint worth a trip to this tent: A juggler so incredibly accomplished, powering through a repertoire of tricks and not making a single error, as to leave me wondering in joy: is he the greatest I have seen since I first beheld the great Francis Brunn many years ago in my boyhood? He probably is. Mesmerizing through and through. Monte Carlo should just send him the gold, no questions asked, no appearances necessary. Who is he? Of course, he is not announced, and in the program where every artist gets the same tiny space for a mug shot (shame on you, Cirque, for such miserly credit-giving), I learn that I have just witnessed the work of Anthony Gatto. Star. Star. Star.

These breath taking turns are what give the otherwise meandering Kooza an edge and a purpose. There are a number of other artists, to be sure, who demonstrate agility and polish and add a degree of pleasure to the mix: a group of intrepidly nimble contortionists; an acrobatic duo of persuasive agility; another pair who ride a bicycle inventively, combining romantic flirtations with nimble acrobatics; a guy from Sweden of all places named Michael Halvarson who mines comedy magic with a sly pick-pocketing turn using a shill from the crowd. All nice enough stuff.

Overall, however, curiously Kooza suffers from the uneasy convergence of dispirit forces competing for attention — the star circus acts who will not be reduced to stick figures in a Cirque mist; the bickering clowns who consume too much ring time, some of it courtesy of audience volunteers (who, for all I know, could be shills); the so-called “story,” and Cirque’s lingering compulsion to produce its signature atmosphere. Director-writer David Shiner has not succeed in merging these elements into an embracing aesthetic unity. In this department, Kooza is no match for the memorable Varakei, so the audience must settle for a pleasant ersatz Vegas variety format.

Shiner's writerly vision lacks rhythm, and the production lacks pacing and sharper transitions. Given Cirque’s unlimited resources, prop changes that take time should not. The narrative premise is realized in fits and starts, although the plight of The Innocent is charmingly essayed by Stephan Landry who rings a little pathos in the end when he is left alone with only his kite after the circus gypsies have disappeared into a dark mist of closure.

Music follows action faithfully, which means that we get many different sounds and styles from ethnic to jazz, yet most of it relevant and engaging and a welcome change from the operatic scores of the past.

My biggest complaint is as much a wish: There could and should have been more content here. A couple of the acts listed in the program — a duo single trap turn and the outstanding Chinese chair balancer, Zhang Congli — did not appear that day; perhaps they would have done the trick. Cirque’s billionaire big top boss has all the money he needs, and still he uses sponsors. And now he has eliminated the free water stations on the lot. The impression he conveys is of a filthy rich producer with a serious greed problem. Not a pretty impression.

At least Mr. Laliberte has shown a stomach for the authentic artistry that thrills a house time and time again. And he may have no other choice in order to stay in business but to give the public the circus it expects — no matter the format, no matter the dry ice formula.

Overall Grade: ***


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

17% Jump in Carson & Barnes Biz Sparked by "Innovative News Ads" and Free Tix Blitz ...

71-year old Carson & Barnes is riding high on a big boost in attendance this year, at least by 17% as of 2 months ago, and as high as 20%, says the tenter's new Sarasota-based marketing manager, Harry Dubsky.

How the magic? Short of giving away his trade secrets, Dubsky credits the dramatic upswing in customer turnout to the mass saturation of free tickets to a lot of different sources and inventive newspaper advertising. "We work with the sponsors a lot," he says. "We did not goof off."

Has Barbara Byrd found her Art Concello? Her Douglas Lyon? Dubsky makes clear that his efforts were only part of the mix, that everybody played a part ...

And that's a nice message given the struggles that all American circuses are facing to pull in profitable crowds. Three rings to California in 2008, please!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Glory That Was Minnelli ... The Genius That Was Allen ...

On Film Forever

Vincente Minnelli’s Bandwagon makes color look as beautiful as black and white. This has to be, sorry Gene Kelly, my favorite movie musical. Fabulous Schwartz & Dietz songs from start to finish. Superb comedy from Jack Buchanan, as theatrical a performer as ever there was. Effortless perfection from Astaire and Charisse, their “Dancing in the Dark” a masterpiece of controlled choreography second only, in my opinion, to Gene Kelly’s signature song and dance exhuberation in Singing in the Rain.

Director Minnelli (among his credits, Father of the Bride, Gigi) turned his masterfully-paced Bandwagon into pure cinematic gold. We are not watching a movie. We are inhabiting it. Surrounded, encased and embraced at every frame by the colors and stage pictures of an extraordinary artist. That was what Hollywood once gave us; pure enchantment, yes, as pure as was stark black and white to film noir classics.

Bandwagon came out in 1953. Did American culture peak about then? Let’s see, Tennessee Williams turning out his best work on Broadway. Leonard Bernstein using television to teach kids how to appreciate classical music. Lucy amusing millions on Monday nights. Rod Serling thinking up a new show called "The Twilight Zone." Richard Rodgers scoring a brilliant tv documentary about world war II, "Victory at Sea;" Rodgers and Hammerstein riding high. So, too, John Ringling North.

Minnelli should have directed a circus for North.

Woody Allen’s prime came later, and surely it began with the 1969 hit Take the Money and Run. Watching it the other night on TCM, I was reminded of how ingenuously funny this man once was. How almost alone he reigned for a spell in his inventive genius. I remember standing in lines outside Bay Area movies houses to see his work, before he retreated into redundancy and protracted adolescent infatuations, before he got too much artistic freedom and listened to the wrong people or critics and lost it. There is a new book out on Allen, who, according to a New York Times review, seems not to understand what made his most popular films so good, who prefers pointing to his recently acclaimed MatchPoint , a quite compelling film -- until it falls apart before the final frame. Of recent Allen efforts, only Sweet and Lowdown truly impressed me.

Woody Allen used to make great movies. Either he does not realize or is unwilling to admit that his comedic flair for quirky surprise humor is what set him apart from the others. If only he could muster the will to joke his way back before he becomes irretrievably lost in vanity land.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Performing Circus Animals Are A-Okay, says Brit Government Study ... Nelly Unpacks Her Trunk and "Decides to Stay" ...

Good News for real big tops around the globe

A promising Brit study, detailed in, has concluded that circus animals are "kept in adequate conditions."

Writes the Guardian, "the result will delight the four British circuses out of 27 that still use animals in their acts."

Concluded the investigating group, according to the London Telegraph, "There was 'little evidence' that the welfare of animals kept in traveling circuses was any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments."

Currently, a total of only 47 animals appear under Brit big tops. Among them, a kangaroo and 4 reindeer, tigers and lions and camels, 6 snakes -- and only one elephant, touring but retired from the ring.

Ironically, the study was commissioned by Ministers at the Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with a view towards banning wild animals from circuses. Maybe they should just ban themselves?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

MIDWAY FLASH ... MIDWAY FLASH ... Cirque du Soleil to Kodak Theatre Hollywood for 10-year Run

Just announced in today's L.A. Times. More to follow about a Hollywood themed show to be created by Cirque du Soleil for the Kodak on Hollywood and Hyland. Slated to open in 2010.

[AP photo, from left: The Innocent, the L.A. Mayor and Cirque's Guy Laliberte

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fires and Falls ... Wintuk Out of Luck? ... New Cole A Go for '08 ... Carson & Barnes Bucks Slowbiz Trends ... PETA to the Rescue???


The fight to circus goes on, through mud and slush and pickets and red tape, and the best of them take it. We’re thinking John Pugh, fearless owner of New Cole, who circuses on despite perennial rumors to the contrary. Sarasota calls every five years — “I think this will be the last season for Cole” Oh? When I interviewed John in 2005, he seemed perfectly happy even struggling to keep his show on the road. Some circus producers do not give up. John retired the bulls one season, reprieved them the next, listening to his customers say go for it ... And I say go for it, too, John! ... On the other hand, THIS is ominous: New Cole (you know, Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. for many years) did NOT offer a program magazine in 2007, a first. That bothers me ... Neither did the shuttered Circus Chimera or the still trouping Circus Vargas.

Down in Southern California, the Vargas show survived the burning infernos all around it, though biz was down. Vargas helped raise money for a non-perishable food drive in Orange County for fire victims, says Joan Hart. The daring men with hoses and emergency personnel were invited to the show, free of charge.

Not so lucky were two aerialists with Cirque’s Vegas Zumanity, the one losing her grip from a ribbon drape 15 feet above the floor and falling south, accidentally, onto her partner. Looks like both will be okay, and to that I send best wishes for a speedy recovery ... How sadly ironic given Cirque’s usual deference to mechanics and extra precautions. So many such accidents are not the fault of human error but of technical malfunction ... Life is dangerous, kids ...

Is Cirque's Guy Laliberte running low on magic? The unpretty notices in New York over the apparently plodding premiere of Wintuk at the theatre at Madison Square Garden do not bode well. Most of the critics point to mediocre acts. Said one, even a kid new to the big tops would instantly sense inferior tricks..... Which calls to mind a chat I fell into outside the Getty Museum in LA. a pair of years back with two women. Both from out of town and both Cirque du Soleil fans. Said one, “They are starting to water down the acts,” to which the other agreed. I recalled being unthrilled while I sat through Cirque’s super-abstract Coreto in San Francisco, being able to choose from many seats for about one third of them were empty. Bay Area Critics gave the show kudos. Dissenting letter writers in the San Francisco Chronicle said things I was thinking.

About Wintuk? Will the kiddies embrace it and render the critics impotent? Or, might the tide be turning in favor of tradition. Interesting to consider that Cirque, which drew folks away from circus, may eventually push them back to circus. Speaking of which -- circus --- cheers to Paul Binder's Big Apple , back in Gotham and drawing boffo notices ...

Bring on the animal-rights protesters! That's what Rene Storey, New Cole's VP, told the Orlando Sentinel's Rachael Jackson. "It usually helps our business." Now isn't that a novel twist. It suggests all sorts of devious scenarios that might help revive foundering big tops ... Love your sense of humor, Rene ...

Go, Carson & Barnes! From what I hear, your business picked up in 2007. I read it, Don Covington connected, in the Orlando Sentinel’s story about the hard times for John Pugh, who, nonetheless, is signing act contracts for 2008, putting to rest once again those tired old rumors I keep hearing. Another spring. Another chance. Maybe another crowd somewhere ... Pray for PETA publicity ...

--- filed by Cheerleader David.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Rediscovering the San Francisco of My Youth

This first appeared on November 3, 2007
From the clanging jerky rumble of a cable car ride
, San Francisco is perfectly itself: Beautiful and Vain. Quaint. Festive. Bohemian. Dangerous. An aging madam desperate to be loved. Nothing connects me more vividly to the city of my boyhood than to experience it from one of these little iron icons rattling halfway to the stars ... Many years ago when I took a night class in drawing at the Academy of Art College somewhere up on Nob Hill, I would jump aboard a cable car to get there, and the dramatic journey up and down hills past grand arches and stately Victorian mansions through sharp clean ocean air made me feel like I had finally arrived, even though I never really arrived.. ... In the lobby of an ad agency with earnest portfolio in hand, I braced myself while an art director took the time to glance over my samples. With barely a sigh, tersely he said, “You need to go to school.”

I kept on going to school, up at Santa Rosa Junior College, taking more art classes and, at home, designing more LP album covers and Ringling Bros. Circus posters .... A kindly English instructor intervened, telling me with faith in his eyes that I had what it took to be a writer ... Art director closes one door. Lit teacher opens another. Still, I’d like to draw. Still I’d like to paint... And still, I feel like a writer trying to be a writer ...

We were riding a cable car, weren’t we. Oh, how special they can make you feel the way they toss you up and down hills and throw you around curves with gusto at 5 mph! I’ve been too many years between clattering climbs and nerve-wracking drops. Too many years out of touch with a city’s remarkable charm. All those tourists at Powell and Market kept me away. Before this tough old waterfront city sold its soul to tourism, I recall the Powell St. turntable without the long Disneyesque lines. Today, I hopped the fairly ignored California Street slot, easily nabbing a seat, and rode the rumble up Nob Hill and down to Polk. Destination: game of Monopoly with a friend at the Leland Tea Company. Japanese rice tea for me, please. Not so fun, an S.F. version of the board game, even though I managed to nab the priciest lots better known as Boardwalk and Park Place ... Maybe, as somebody once said, you can’t go home again. but my niece Lisa and I agree that you can go back to Monopoly the original.

And you can go back to San Francisco the original on the Powell or California Street lines. Tis a pity the town lost its subtle sophistication to the in-your-face crowd. Now to live there, you have to have a lot of money or none at all. So much of the mystery is long gone. The town of my birth deserved better than the slobbish 60s.

On my reverse journey back to Market, the grinding gears and levers remind me of the old Big Dipper Roller Coaster at Playland-at-the Beach across the very street from where I was raised ... of days walking home from Lafayette Elementary with my sister Kathy when we spotted our father inside the maze of wood, hammering boards back into place and waving at us .... Of other times when my Uncle Smitty, who managed the Dipper, walked me through its forest-like structure to show me how flat strips of thick metal were curved into fresh rails. How the pull chain came up at the right point to meet the rush of oncoming cars from out of the dark tunnel, grabbing hold and pulling them sky high before letting a load of crazies scream their guts out on the first big plunge down down down ...

From a cable car the city feels perfectly realized. And I can understand why those who hawk their fortunes on rent and mortgages to live here feel a tad smugish. They have claimed a piece of Herb Caen’s Baghdad by the Bay.

The closest I can get is a good outdoor seat up a rumbling hill to the other side ...

Tourists take a ride where mighty ships of commerce once docked. Photo by Showbiz David.


[other photo, above, of my father, right, working the grips of the Big Dipper roller coaster]