Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun, Or So It Seems ...

Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun,  Or So It Seems ...
Kijome Hara with the World’s Smallest Man and Wini McCay

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Circus Bella Entertains Validly — Until it Doesn’t

The Big Juggle.  Photo by Ron Scherl

Yesterday in San Francisco, for a good part of this one hour free show at Yerba Buenna Gardens, they were looking more professional than amateur.  As usual,  the company's crack five piece band, lead by composer Rob Reich,  plays a starring role.  And STAR, they do.

Show is performed in a little ring, in front of a colorful back door.  Spectators make do, sans chairs, sitting on the hard grass.  A good sized crowd responded gratefully, and very few left early. 

Opening ensemble romp is as charming as a delicate confection.   Directors Abigail Munn, David Hunt and Sara Moore prove that you don’t need top acts to create a lively splash.

First act on the bill, foot juggling and risely by the Gentile Family — a woman works with three very young daughters, all of them hip to charming the crowd — sends the show into high gear.

David Hunt, working his customary slack rope routine, cast a more showmanly air this time around.

Hunt’s co-founding partner, Munn, was in top form executing a series of artfully polished classical posturing, twists and turns and drops on a single trapeze, all of which, in the key of aerial ballet, holds the eye and earns quiet respect.  If only she could set herself into swinging arcs –  she’d have so much more to offer.

Blue Suits, five or six guys having a ball sliding back and forth across a table, sometimes in and through and around each other, manage to compose an amusing array of comedic situations. 

Keep in mind, all of this action is being cleverly and joyfully scored by five agile musicians, each of whom seem to gleefully dance around the goings on. The original scoring is relevant and rich, full of contrast and whimsy, nothing less than a force unto itself.  Fans who bemoan the dearth of live music under our truncated tents will find this alone a satisfaction to savor.

Circus Bella is weak on programming showmanship.  Prop changes and transitions are rough and sloppy and time-consuming, possibly the reason the clowns, sometimes funny enough (one of them reminds me a little of Mr. Sniff), sometimes silly, spend a little too much time hanging out between the acts. 

Okay, to this point, I was thinking Big Advance for the Oakland-based troupe.  They had me in the palm of their hands, to a decent degree, yes.  But ...  then came two strained acts  that failed to   sustain what so far had engaged the kid-heavy crowd: The weirdly obtuse antics of DeMarcwellos Funes “Hambone Body Percussion,” a turn that failed to go anywhere,  and the Chinese Pole maneuvering of Ross Travis, whose overly labored workout amounts to a work in progress not yet ready for prime time.

At least, to compensate between these two dragging moments, Natasha Kaluza, working hoops, not like some humdrum house hoop act  but like a gifted juggler of invention and poise, easily won the crowd’s most rousing reception.  

Show lacks pacing. Worst of all, it takes the company far too long  to set up and test the Chinese Pole.  And once the act is over, rather than just leave it standing and segue smoothly into the group juggling finale,  more dead time is taken up in getting the thing back down onto the ground. 

Given the company's free-show status and ties to the public school community, it would be unfair to to issue a star rating, even though, for a good half, they were looking like a circus that might one day go pro. But that is not in their DNA.  They do a string of leisurely spread out dates during the summer in the San Francisco Bay Area.  They rely on funding in various forms. No tickets sales, which makes me wonder if this is the first “free circus” I have ever seen. Probably.

In 2009, when I saw the show in its second season, I had hoped they would move in a more quasi professional direction, like the old Pickle Family Circus, but that does not appear to be in the cards.

One day, when Circus Bella’s day has passed, looking back, those who correctly remember, will write about that the troupe's terrific little band.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Lost Angeles: Backlot City Spreads Gold Among the Garbage

The City That Never Is: One vast junky back lot of sets old and new — the best too bright and full of wonder to ignore.  Sharing space with this vast nothingness, they are the reason you go.  Find them and be entertained.   Be inspired.   Find them and believe in this sporadically brilliant one-story metropolis, squeezed callously between a rape of incestuous freeways along a dried up river bed, cemented over, a real river that once flowed with pure water and glistened under a paradise of endless sun.

Now, the “L.A. River” lays there like a disgraced skeleton nobody dares claim – they are all too busy making deals, tearing down the old to make way for the new in an ever-expanding mess of off ramps and on ramps, over and under.  Detour City.  Perhaps one day there will be no way out. Coming back over the Grapevine, the bus came to a stop, and for two tortuous hours I watched the same trucks and cars moving ahead then behind us, over and over in slow slow motion, wondering if we would ever see land again.  When we did, we managed to reach the place, where you transfer from bus-to-rail, called Bakersfield.  (No, no, David, leave that one alone.)

But, it’s the “in-between” that counts.  Move this way or that by a few miles, and another cultural oasis will smash your low opinion of the town.   Will make you fall in love all over again with the  towering treasures that keep its depressing sprawl an irresistible draw.  The Disney Concert Hall, up there on top, soars and glides, dances and swirls — without ever moving an inch.  Its mere existence, a miracle, shows the world how.  Los Angeles knows how to show the world how. The Getty museum, next three images, elevates art high on an exalted hill overlooking the insulting urban patchwork below.  It’s the American story, brother — you’ll find smaller versions of this depressing challenge everywhere.   Maybe a few blocks up the street from where you live.  Northern California’s Santa Rosa, once a  tender little town, also suffers the rape of auto-mania. Guns and gas.  Point made?   Consider that last sentence a sincere act of honest journalism.

Come here and gawk: oil wells in front yards!  Maybe still.  A brand new modern subway of ugly claustrophobic carriages (who designed these -- the IRS?) putting you six feet under — when the Big Earthquake breaks you’ll already be where you may have ended up, anyway, your burial on the town.

I have come to loath a subway system I loved when it opened.  Its individually designed stations, real artists in charge, showed the world how.  But one rush hour, a few visits back, I pushed myself down below into a stuffed and hot Metro car, which stalled now and then, and could not wait for the liberation I prayed God would grant me.  Suddenly, I rediscovered the charming relief of an above-ground bus ride!  Glory on high!  Something about fresh air and sunshine (okay, even smog) that appeals to my earth-bound nature.

Above L.A. once again, I exult in the humdrum rides that show me exactly where I am and where I am going.   And, of course, the MTA is cutting back on buses to force commuters down into these rat holes of human transport.  Why is it, then, that I never feel so doomed riding New York's rattletraps?  For one reason, perhaps: the riders in Gotham speak my own language.

Here are a few of the bus-stop photos I took on my bus ride out Sunset Boulevard to Westwood for a connecting bus to the Getty art museum   (This was intended to be a very sociological, award-winning photo spread, but then came Beverly Hills, with not a single soul anywhere at or around a bus stop.  And there my project died.)


The elevated  Gold Line, God bless it, feels so perfectly L.A.  Something about the sunshine it favors.    You glide, Disneyland-style, past a panorama of contrasts, cement plants to houses on hills, Italian style.   To another great museum, the Norton Simon, you are sanely delivered.  When the Big Quake rocks, I'd rather be above than below earth. 

Now the Gold Line, extended, moves the other way too.  I took it to reach another lovely oasis, Little Tokyo – the place that gave birth to the international acclaims that put a new troupe from Montreal, Cirque du Soleil, on the map.  In 1987.  I was there.   Wherever it was that Cirque pitched its little tent, there should be a plaque marking the historic occasion.    At the East West Players, they were presenting a revival of their 1999 work, Beijing Spring.  There was much to enjoy in thunderbolts of youthful passion and protest, passionaely scored, crossing a busy stage.  But the  scene inevitably expected, "tank man" stopping a column of tanks dead in their tracks, never arrived.  A major let down.


Sometimes, the city gets it right:  That depressing slab of old downtown, around Broadway, that festered with huge homeless encampments, along with society's dangerous outcasts, is now being transformed into thousands of upscale new condos and apartments, and a thriving working class revival. Anything wrong with that?  I have no problem with a return of civilization.

You can't sit here anymore!   Shame on Union Station for these ropes, that deny one the right to enjoy its phenomenal atmosphere

Worst thing about L.A?  Well, I see less and less of my own whenever I visit.  Ask somebody for directions and hear them tell you: “Me no speak English”.  Half the population is now Mexican. They keep on coming (I’ll refrain from going political) and will soon dominate the demographic contest.  What then? Our own version of South Africa -- hard working poor in tense alliance with a narrowing rich upper middle class? 

An exhilarating bus ride to the Getty out in Brentwood takes me through Beverly Hills. You are in Never Never Land. Gorgeous scenery all the way. 

At Fillippe's sawdust-over-the-floor restaurant, near Union Station, photos and posters hung during the era of the Paul Eagle's Circus Luncheon Club, ever shrinking in number and space allocation, still grace one wall.

Farewell, Back Lot City. You always send me away with a fresh goal; this time, I'm dreaming, how long before Union Station returns to its senses and cuts down the damn ropes encircling the lobby seats like prison-yard chains, killing the freedom for anyone to walk in, sit down, and savor the magnificence of it all?  It's up to you L.A -- L.A.!

[all photos by Showbiz David]

From June 14, 2014


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Big Apple Circus Disappoints, Big Time: Between Powerhouse Acts at Both Ends, Luminociy Lacks Velocity

Mesmerizing star power at the outset:  Ty Tojo

Circus Review
Big Apple Circus, Luminocity
May 24, 12:30 pm.
Queens, New York

Luminocity will not go down as one for the books.

This latest edition of Big Apple Circus strives to link circus acts to the sundry goings-on around  Times Square — construction workers to cab rides (for dogs), to the surly pickpockets who may still be stalking the sidewalks.  But except for two outstanding acts that frame a surprisingly slim lineup, neither the theme nor the performers engaged to bring it off rise above a moderately pleasing campaign.

First, to the good news: Upon entering the tent, a deftly designed set evoking both the grit and glitter of Times Square neon, captivates.  Show's amiable host, ringmaster John Kennedy Kane, casts a welcoming figure, both gracious and commanding.  He exudes a genuine warmth neither hackneyed nor pandering.  And if at moments he comes off a tad awkwardly constrained by some stiff scripting, yet his true colors shine bright at finale.  Then, by the sparkling power of his concise announcing style alone,  Kane reaches a perfect pitch in oratory, persona, and flair.  He and Ringling are a dream match waiting to happen.

An articulate asset:  John Kennedy Kane

Another production asset is a rich and vibrant original score, composed by David Bandman and Jeffrey Holme, and delivered with smooth gusto by bandleader Rob Slovik.  Only rarely do the charts turn bland or drone out. When the kick-off act, astoundingly accomplished 15-year-old juggler Ty Tojo, hits the ring, the band reads his every move as if the two had been touring together for years.  With only one slight miss, this astonishing wizard of manipulation fashions mesmerizing fountains of flying balls in a myriad of patterns, shifting his body positions as he operates.  Profoundly satisfying, I could have watched his record-breaking routine another time or two

Tojo’s exhilarating assault is not, unfortunately, sustained by what follows, not, that is, until the Dosov Troupe come on to close out the program.  One could argue that there is work of merit on display here.  Surely the impressive contortions of Acro Duo command respect.  And Daniel Cyr’s agile workout on a free-standing  ladder is fairly neat stuff.  But these two relatively static turns, neither a driving force, are symptomatic of an inherent weakness in the programming.  Add to that the minimal impact of two animal drills managed by the usually brilliant Jenny Vidbel (a big let down -- perhaps, the dogs had an off day) and then, factor in a couple of borderline aerial offerings (one being the theoretically terrific Mongolian Angels,but rigged to mechanics)  — and together, they compose a slow-motion pageant shy on the wow factor.

Nor does the show draw much of a pulse from the soft staging given it by director Michel Barette, who seems to favor a tender coddling of audience members for numerous in-the-act recruitments.

So we turn to the clowns. Returning jester Rob Torres is a pleasing enough asset, creatively engaging in a laid-back manner, who evokes some warm laughter.  If only he had a stronger show against which to contrast his essentially gentle nature.  Another comedic figure is the curiously one-note Pierre Ginet,  a fast talking pickpocket who works an audience volunteer. Ginet’s incessantly annoying chatter while removing the man’s assets is much ado about nothing, and before our eyes, we witness an act fizzling out well before its ring time is up.

Most ill-fitting of all are the rickety exploits aloft, fairly fundamental stuff, of aging high wire walkers, Duo Guerrero, whose allusion to romance — she opens with a slow stroll up an inclined wire while taking her sweet time warbling out a schmaltzy ballad, somewhat self-indulgently  — comes off as a little cheesy. Now, if she had sung, "Start spreading the news, I'm leaving today!" -- well now, that might have worked.  At their best and most serious, they execute a fine two-high human pyramid without lunge down the inclined wire.  But exactly how they are supposed to connect with the Times Square angle left me feeling a bit thematically deprived.
Back into high gear sails Big Apple –  just in time to thrill us before our ambivalent exits.  Enter the Dosov Troupe of teeter-board gods.  Their entire act is one perfect sensation — staging to choreography, costumes to scoring, pacing to build.  Monte Carlo Gold all the way.  

On balance, this meager opus is the weakest Big Apple Circus I have ever seen.  Tent only being two-thirds full, the smallest crowd I’ve come upon at a BAC outing, it seemed hardly a surprise.   Luminosity must mark a major misstep for new artistic Guillaume Dufresnoy, who has produced superior action and theatrical cohesion in some of his earlier offerings.  His reach into a variety of artistic formats is a plus.  But like any circus, if you don't have the acts, you don't have the show.

Overall rating (4 stars tops): 2 stars

 The Dusov Troupe lift a lagging lineup into big top heaven