The Little Circus That Could ... Highest Rated of Them All on Yelp

The Little Circus That Could ... Highest Rated of Them All on Yelp
Currently Reigning Champion at 4-1/2 Stars, Zoppe Family Circus Wins the Crowds with Heart-Warming Tradition

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Showbiz David’s Year End Circus Kudos (if others can do it, why can't I?) ...

From 2014

Oh, by gosh, by golly!  The good old days are now only six yeas ago!
How I miss it when there was so much more to blog about.

 Legends, at Ringling-Barnum
First off, please take note:  These kudos are based upon my having seen, in some form, the following shows during 2014:

Big Apple Circus, Luminosity, Queens
Circus Bella, San Francisco
Ringling-Barnum, Legends, Oakland
Kelly Miller (from a DVD of the entire performance)
Big Apple Circus, Metamorphosis,  live streaming tape delay, in a movie house, Emeryville, CA
Cirque du Soliel, Kurios, San Francisco.

So, to be clear, among the shows I did not see, there are these:
Carson and Barnes
Cole Bros.

Thus, I am issuing Kudos rather than Awards.

Drum Rolls! Fanfare! Enter the Honored!

Outstanding Circus Performance of the Season
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey - Legends 

Greatest Advance in Showmanship for a Single Producer
John Ringling North II.  Two of this years best acts are first-time-in Americas.  North is proving his potential to rise higher.

Best Staged and Scored  Act
Dosov Tetterboard troupe, Big Apple Circus - Luminocity.  Bloody brilliant.

Best Contortion Act
Amina and Azai, from Mongolia, Kelly Miller Circus
Transcending the tortuously slow muscularity of arguably far more complicated contortion routines out there, yet these two gals invest their crisply animated  repertoire with intricate leg movements, impressively unified and coordinated. It is the only contortion act I've seen in a long while that I would welcome seeing again. (Yes, and yes - slow slow slow leaves me bored bored bored.)

Single Most Mesmerizing Display
Ty Tojo, Big Apple Circus - Luminocity

Best Original Score
David Bandman and Jeffrey Holmes, Big Apple Circus - Lumnocity

Best Live Music, tie
Big Apple Circus, Luminoicty, Rob Slovki, director
Circus Bella, Rob Reich, composer, accordionist, and band leader.  Reich's work bubbles with giddy melodic bounce and enthusiasm, making Bella a continuous joy to the ear.

Outstanding New Discovery
Showmanly Abrham Gebre, ball bouncing juggler, Kelly Miller Circus.  He somersaults into the tent, makes charismatic eye contact, and pulses the show with natural star power.

Best Ringmaster (Role) of the Season
John Kennedy Kane appearing to play John Kennedy Kane, Big Apple Circus, Luminocity

Best  Reliably Good Ringmaster
John Moss III, Kelly Miller Circus
Moss repeats a recurring traditional role with class and power, unhampered by the scripting that can
compromise or corrupt the natural talents of others, like John Kennedy Kane or Jonathan Lee Iverson.

Outstanding Novelty Act
Lamount, the Human Volcano, Kelly Miller Circus. 
A work of deft ingenuity and staging based on fire eating, Lamount expands standard fire-eating tricks into a riveting spectacle of panache, funky humor, and dazzling fireworks in the dark.

Outstanding use of hula hoops in atypical fashion
Natasha Kaluz, Circus Bella,
for fashioning a most engaging juggling routine using hula hoops as props

Outstanding Wild Animal Display
Alexander Lacey, Ringling-Barnum - Legends

Outstanding Mixed Animal Display
Vicki Zsilak and Hans and Maria Close, featuring dogs, pigs and two jumping kangaroos.
Ringling-Barnum - Legends

Most Promising Young Wild Animal Trainer on the Rise
Ryan Holder, Kelly Miller Circus.  One of his charges moves about upright on his hind legs for an impressively extended period, his expressive front paw movements seeming to "feel" the music of Michael Jackson's Thriller.  Memorable.

Outstanding Razzle Dazzle
Smirnov Duo, Quick Change (attire), Big Apple Circus, Metamorphosis.

Outstanding Production Number
The opener at Ringling-Barnum - Legends
A supernatural sensation; I've never felt so far out -- into another world. Absolutely stunning.

Outstanding Creativity in Circus Production
Cirque du Soleil - Kurios.

Outstanding Presentation of Traditional Chinese Acrobatics
The hoop divers,  Ringling-Barnum - Legends

Outstanding Combination of Ground Acrobats and Aerial
Trampoline and Vaulting, Cirque du Soleil, Kurios.  These two terrific turns electrify the crowd.

Funniest Clowning  
(not easy, there were so few well-earned laughs out there):
Ringling Clowns spoofing a bike riding act, Ringling-Barnum - Legends.

Most  Exciting Ringmaster Announcement
John Moss at Kelly Miller:  "Children of all ages!  John Ringling North the second welcomes you to the two thousand fourteenth edition of the Kelly Miller Circus!"

Yes, I'm a hopeless Ringlingphile.  But then, so are you, right?

From December 30, 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Circus Scramble: Telling Cirque’s Survey What I Think ... When 3-Rings Ruled ... Grandma, Was That Really YOU? ... Ringling Promises New Old Fashioned Danger ... And More! ...

Following the arrows in reverse ...

Update:  12/21/14:  Cirque du Soleil now said to be looking for major investment partners, including possibility of selling a "majority stake," as reported in The Financial Times of  London.

Finally, I opened a survey sent to me by Cirque du Soleil, since I had invested $95.00 to get a decent seat at Kurios - not without sight line obstructions.  The questions are extensive, all of them being answered by the usual 1 to 10 rating system.  At the end, comes a blank window, asking me to post a comment.  And here was mine:

“Here is my biggest surprise.  Guy Laliberte talked about returning to the company's roots. This is hardly that, but an ever more elaborate special effects production, giving short shrift to circus acts of a world class order."

Among tons of questions -- choreography, direction, characters, lights, --- the only mention of circus action comes in a two word descriptor "acrobatic performances".  They did want to know if I thought there were enough of those, and I think I answered a five or six.

Can Kurios curb an ominous downward trend in critical reception and ticket sales for the company?   Sorry to say, at this point, I don’t feel so emotionally connected to the troupe as I once did -- whatever else they may wish to give me, the circus part should be just as outstanding, too, thank you.

What next down the stack?  From a promo leaflet put out by the American Circus Corporation back in around, I’d guess, circa 1920s, and how stunning a contrast to the above:

“The uncensored circus has received much editorial attention during the current year ... all sorts and conditions of humanity boost the circus spirit, and any organization which will energetically awaken the circus microbes which seem to be inherent in human nature — will sure reap results — but to do so and to give satisfaction a REAL THREE RING CIRCUS IS NEEDED, an ordinary vaudeville or variety circus can no longer be passed off as circus.”

Cultural whiplash:  Where am I now, and how far have I traveled away from that old three ring circus?   I am, it feels, centuries away:  Down Mexico way, more than rumors warn that the big shots who run the country are bent on running animals acts off the lot, and those who pay money to see them are showing up, not too impressed, asking “where are the animals?”  Without which, me no wanna buy a ticket to your dull show.

And here in Oakland, to further deconstruct what is left of the one ring standing, the city council has officially voted bull hooks off the lot, come 2017, giving Feld plenty of time to do his deal making behind the scenes – unless the man can break his fixation on elephants.  If the bans hold, he won’t be welcome in Oakland OR L.A., and who knows what other cities.  More out there are lining up to take similar stands. They have, like it or not, CFA, that damming You Tube of Feld’s elephants backstage getting cursed out and slapped around.  Not pretty when it came out five years ago.  Not any prettier now.

END RINGERS: I’m cooking up an end-of-the-year random list of Goods and Bads, Naughtys & Nices. Did you know, juggling records as of 2006 included 13 rings, 12 balls, 9 clubs — and a partridge in a pear tree?  ... The recent passing of Struppi Hanneford, fabulous in the air, wonderful lady on the ground,  marked a big loss for the great Old Guard of ring artists who once wowed our senses ... Is that really YOU,  Grandma, showing up on the Hanneford show, or is it one of your licensed stand ins?  A Circus Report review drops the name Bary Lubin, the Original as you in the know know, but in other quarters closer to BAC land, Lubin is thought to be living in Sweden. Speaking of clowns,  those who hide out behind funny faces bent on scarring to death the public are now stalking the streets of France, attacking innocents, per Chuck Burnes, in CR ...  Now, even circus clowns are becoming an endangered species.  No animals ... fewer daredevils to speak of -- we are nearly down to the last remaining acceptable default act, to quote from the CDS survey, "acrobatic performances" ... Ah yes, and just in the nick of posting this one, it just hit my brain that Ringling's new opus soon to be uncorked down Florida way is to be called.  Circus Xtreme.  Love it ... And look here -- they are still sending in the clowns!

First posted 12.18.14

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Cirque du Soleil’s Intensely Creative Kurios Works Overtime to Win Us Back: Give Them Passing Marks for Trying

Circus Review
Cirque du Soleil - Kurios
San Francisco, December 5

In its most infections frames, what the latest offering from Cirque du Soliel seems the most happy doing is simply dancing.  Being a little goofy and off axis juggling and tumbling, making magic and riding upside-down bicycles — and dancing.  It's happy heart is that of a free spirited Italian variety show romping through the streets of Rome.  Fellini would have loved filming it all.

The agreeable spirit of quirky invention can make the more standard circus turns (two of them attached to lifelines) seem a tad secondary, or make that obligatory (a touch of Corteo comes to mind).   Even, slightly passe, as if we have somehow left the big top rather than entered it, and are on our way for other worlds to conquer and charm. The attractive revelers, who engage more directly with the audience this time around, have a ball cavorting about on ingenious rigging devices that lift and drop them with terrific force and agility.

Directed by Michel Laprise, the party begins at the wacky control panels of a whimsically mad-scientist character, who is very funny just to watch waddling about, puttering through a maze of gadgets, turning knobs to test lights, ridding oddball contraptions to prove his obscure genius – all of which gives the company ample sanction to flex its abundant creativity.  That’s about the gist of the first half.

It is not until after a long intermission, only lacking a pony ride to make the mechanizing orgy complete (there is free water this year, but no cups – they cost a buck), that Kurios turns itself into a high powered circus spectacular, and here the Montreal monster proves that it can still rise gloriously to the occasion when it has to, as here it surely must.  Public patronage has been ominously on the decline in recent seasons, a fact even acknowledged by the Cirque King himself.

First to soar are troupe exploits over a super-large trampoline, followed by a couple of fellows working straps in a clean efficient fashion.  After more audience clowning and dancing, and a rather drawn out finger puppet show, big top gusto resumes on the ground, where the company develops vaulting acrobatics in fantastically thrilling ways.  Much too marvelously complicated to explain, nor have I at hand a program to name names.  On principal, I refused to invest $20 in one. 

So, whatever you may think of the part that came before the break (I recall a blur of phantasmagorical stage pictures) , you are sure to go out singing at least half the show’s praises.  And the captivating special effects alone may haunt your imagination.   There were a large number of kiddies in the audience who sounded tickled.   I keep thinking movie.  I also keep thinking another cinematic bomb.   Antonioni might get it right.   Is he still alive?

On film, it would certainly be far easier to take in and comprehend.  When Kurios is working its many optical illusions, it is a campaign that demands meticulous attention, which can make being a patron to this party a bit of a workout, doubly so if your view is partially blocked by one of the four imposing tent poles – or if you are not particularly fond of craning your neck to peer deeply into a cosmos through an opening at the top of the tent. Bring binoculars.

Another question mark in my mind is the featured clown, who took up plenty of time with the audience being enormously clever and drawing ample laughter, or so I heard. Yes, it's that kind of a circus, too.

This is the Cirque du Soleil that some of its most devoted critics are calling the “comeback" edition, perhaps responding to Guy Laliberte's promise to return the company to its roots.  Strange, this is hardly a return to the ingenious simplicity that marked the company's first efforts under a smaller tent with virtually no special effects.  Kurios is really an extension of a habit for ever more clever high-tech stage wizardry that the Cirque King can't seem to break himself of.

So as for “comeback,”  I’m not so sure.  And given the swaths of empty chairs under a fairly near-full tent pitched in a city perhaps best suited by liberal bent to embrace what is on parade at the moment — San Francisco may not be so sure, either.

Overall rating (out of 4 stars tops):  3 stars                                 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Peter Pan Live! on NBC Savaged by Those Who Wished to Savage it, and Many Did -- Ratings 50% Below Sound of Music

Warning: If you are Peter Pan fan, please go no further.  It is not my intent to rattle your  dreams of flight – at the end of a long rope.

I nearly slept through the first Peter Pan, decades ago when NBC presented the original Broadway version live. All I remember was Marty Martin flying over a stage attached to a long wire, singing some songs that sounded more like songs made for TV than for hit Broadway shows, and this funny man, Cyril Richard, making me laugh.  Lots of pirates running around the stage, but, somehow, the whole thing never hooked me.  I sat there trying to feel attached to a story -- if only I could find a story.

When Mary Martin flew, yes, the show on TV truly took glorious flight.  Back down on the stage, it looked and sounded like a second rate musical made for  television.

Thus, I grew up Peter Pan-averse, unable to catch the spirit of flight when endless touring productions of the show flew in and out of town – even when my late friend Mike, a Peter Pan nut, managed to pin me down into a seat before the show by announcing on my birthday – Surprise! – that he had purchased two tickets to the show and ONE was for me. The venue was in San Francisco, where Peter Pan, adapted for the stage,  first flew.  On Broadway, it only flew a total of 149 times – by today’s standards, a full scale fiasco.  But Peter Pan on TV and on National Tours would not be the first  Broadway turkey to enjoy a successful post-New York career.

Sitting next to Peter Pan advocate Mike, I managed to put on – force would be more like it —  a happy Peter Pan face, faking it all the way.  All the while, praying for the final curtain to fall.  Maybe by then, I was just to stubborn to give the show a chance.  My brother Dick is a great Pan fan.   You see, they are all around us.   Maybe I should try facing the show with him.

So, yes, I was more than ready to be tickled by a barrage of nasty anti-Peter Pan reviews, over NBC’s recent Peter Pan Live!, a followup to last year’s NBC Sound of Music.  The show starred Allison   Williams, daughter of the network's newscaster, Brian (a mere conincidence, I imagine), and Chritsoper Walken, seen above.  Viewership, half of that for last year's Sound of Music, was still considered a big success. On balance, critical reception favored Peter Pan over last year's more even ill-remembered Sound of Music.  This Pan was panned by many.

I only watched a few minutes of the show,  deciding I would rather rent it from Netflix than sit through a three-hour commercial-intense ordeal.  When I tuned in, Williams was finely at work on a song, and her winning voice did engage me.

Critics,  you're on!

Associated Press: Peter Pan needed a lot more fairy dust. NBC's live telling of J.M. Barrie's classic tale Thursday was an oddly ponderous, disconnected, disjointed and jerky mess. If it had been a Broadway show, it would have gotten the hook (pun intended).
It wasn't the small things that broke the spell. Ungraceful wire work, clunky transitions, a Tinkerbell that was as annoying as a mosquito and sounded like a wind chime, a tea cup that fell from Peter's head and some technical glitches.  "Peter Pan Live!" simply never flew.

Variety: A woefully lifeless production that, the fancy wiring notwithstanding, never quite got off the ground. (And neither did your boring review, Variety)

Huffington Post:   ... it became monotonous. Many of my friends with kids said their little ones lost interest halfway through ...Then I went back and watched Martin's version and no contest, the latter still shines like a new penny and holds you captivated in its magical spell.

Morning After:  a three-hour college musical theater show whose dullness was punctuated with impressive gayness.

Los Angeles Times theatre critic Charles McNulty, tweeting:

Tweet:  With “The Sound of Music,” NBC seemed to be employing a strategy of saving the American musical by killing it.

Tweet: With Peter Pan, I think the plan is to save the American musical by etherizing it.

Tweet: I think this experiment in live musical theater may just prove that the age of enforced commercial viewing is over.

Given my Peter Pan atheism, for you whom I may have offended, here, from the New York Times, a gift to restore your faith:
New York Times: Peter Pan Live! was a loving, lavish tribute to a beloved musical that offered a new generation of children a chance to use their smartphones to keep Tinkerbell alive. (Peter asked children to clap, but an NBC crawl urged them to also tweet.)
It was a cautious, please-all production, but it took guts to do it.

What next, NBC Live?  Here are some ideas:

Annie Live! -- perfect for your target audience, and a great show

Sweeney Todd Live! (take it to your critics, and dare them to dis this one)

Oklahoma Live! -- hard to imagine your messing up this indestructible classic, but what a challenge to try.

Sunday in the Park with George Live!  -- If you can bring this Stephen Sondheim yawner to life, that would mark a first for the show, and a public service award for you.



Monday, December 08, 2014

Feld Deals Down and Dirty with Oakland Coliseum, the Arena Considering a Ban on Bull Hooks

It just came across on ABC TV's San Francisco affiliate, KGO:

If the Oakland Coliseum Arena follows through with a proposed ban on elephant billhooks, they stand to lose over a million dollars a year.  Here's why, and here is what grabbed my attention fast:

Not only will Feld pull the circus, he will yank his fluffy Disney ice shows and something called, I think, Motor Cross

This strikes me as (legal, I suppose)  calculated coercion. and I wonder how it may play out on the PR front in the Bay Area, not the most hospital place for traditional circus. 

When the news came out, earlier in the year, about the L.A. City council having banned the use of bull hooks (to take place in a couple of years --- this should be interesting to watch unfold), the only thing I heard reported from Feld Entertainment was that the circus reacted more along the emotion of regret, stating that it would not be able to bring the circus to Tinsletown.  Nothing was said, to my knowledge, about the blades and trucks being denied the city.

Can you smell a slowly seething anger gathering flames?


Thursday, December 04, 2014

Selling Circus Arts on TV and At the Movies: It Rarely Works


Back in the world of John Ringling North, the impresario who produced some of the greatest editions ever of the circus, in the 1950s he faced two tough competitors —  movies and television – and he successfully met each on its own terms.  "Success" meaning lush patronage for the filmed versions – if not a boost at the ticket windows for the touring circus itself.  But the winning formats he helped launch would not be duplicated years later, when two major touring companies, Cirque du Soleil and Big Apple Circus, both tried to pitch their goods in the same mediums, to abysmal results.

When North and Art Concello were trying to figure out how to use cinema to their marketing advantage, if not by deft adaptation, then by luck going with the right people, did North’s brilliant showmanship conquer both mediums.

First, at the movies.  Cecil B De Mille’s academy award winning (best picture of the year) epic, The Greatest Show on Earth, wowed the nation with its gripping story line (gripping for the time), its dramatic depiction of the logistical movement of the show itself (complete with an overwrought train wreck that retards the film’s natural pulse – I fast forward through it), and scenes of actual circus acts and specs in performance.  How big a part had North played?  For one thing, through take-charge Concello, he refused to renew an earlier option held by studio chief David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind), and signed, instead, with De Mille.

The movie was such a sensation, that, ironically, it — along with the early force of television — may have suppressed annual attendance at the circus.  But one thing it did for sure was to sustain in the public’s mind the dazzling superiority of the Ringling product.  One might argue that, had the movie not been made, business may have been even weaker during a tricky decade when the rise of TV was dominating American entertainment habits.

Which brings us to television.  In 1955, North, televised a one-hour highlights of the new show, on the eve of its opening in New York, on CBS, doubtlessly seen by millions.  The format was repeated later that year for a Christmas Special with Charlton Heston, from winter quarters.  And they did another TV highlights in the spring of 1956.   Experts debated whether North was giving away too much of the performance.  The 1955 season's attendance was down, but business during the aborted '56 tour (the big top falling for good in Pittsburgh), was said by some to have been rising. Six years later, North reinstated the TV highlights program, with Arthur Godfrey that year serving as host.

North also flirted with television in 1963, when he signed with ABC to include footage of Ringling acts during a weekly one hour dramatic series in color, called The Greatest Show on Earth. The series starred Jack Palance, seen here, right, with Lucile Ball,  who played a tough circus boss keeping peace within the family. It was certainly not a flop, but facing stiff competition from the Jack Benny program and  Petticoat Junction, ABC pulled the show after one complete season, "Mostly," writes a viewer on the IMDb website, "I remember enjoying the acts that were featured - lion-taming acts, trapeze acts, etc."

After the Felds bought the circus in the fall of 1967, they retained most everything that North had developed, including the annual TV tease.  The last such telecast occurred around 1989.

In his turn with cinema, the dynamically aggressive Irvin Feld  had, at one time or another, a major motion picture about the circus in the works (one with "master of disaster"filmmaker Irwin Allen), none of which got made.
So, John Ringling North’s two major excursions into film and television would mark a remarkable exception to the failure of contemporary cinematic efforts, as witness two circuses each lending its acts to the cameras.  What had North done right that isn't being done now?   Hard to say.  It might have been a matter simply of glorifying circus artistry itself rather than  trying to connect it to some big "arching" sociological theme.  People much prefer cotton candy over the big top broccoli that too many circuses today seem bent on serving them.  And people tune into television to watch -- television. Not circus.

Cirque du Soleil:   Incredibly, the company granted PBS widespread access to the acts from its many Las Vegas units.  They called it Flowers in the Desert.  Two hours. The result, in my view far from captivating, fed the viewer an overdose of the Cirque formula stressing acrobats, which, lacking the variety of traditional circus, can wear out a welcome mat fast.  I have yet to see a  PBS rerun of this overstuffed slog.  Yes, it did have a few golden moments, but not nearly enough.  PBS gives prime attention, through endless reruns, to virtually all of the other performing arts.  Not the circus.
Big Apple Circus: Another date with PBS that has yet to be replayed would be Circus, a six-part series broadcast in 2010.  The reviews, not surprisingly, were lukewarm  The sprawling treatment, lacking a strong central focus, came and went like a strange sad parade of disconnected souls attached to a struggling enterprise, at a time of organizational upheaval.  During filming, Paul Binder announced his plans to retire.  Sporadic film clips of the performance seemed disconnected, too, and rather secondary compared to back of the tent interviews with cast and crew.

The producers gained more traction in the shadows, listening to the personal stories of company members, and aiming their cameras at some unflattering things, such as into a filthy truck-mounted restroom used by non-performers and roustabouts. Just another contradiction to a non-profit circus claiming to be New York’s own and to humanely care about  the people it employs.  We watched Paul Binder throwing a tantrum in one scene, Paul Binder, in another, humbling himself to reveal that his retirement announcement had not generated much response. In other words, nobody seemed to care.  The thrill of circus? Too little of it under this tent.

If the producers of Circus wanted to go deep, perhaps they should have gone deeper.  Symptomatic of the rambling treatment was how they played up the New York opening just ahead —  This is the Big Test!  The ultimate arena for any performer! We're in the Big Apple now! What will the reviews say? --- but then never disclosed what the reviews said.  The program's most poignant thread was the plight of a new clown. Glen Heroy, above, he feeling completely ignored and ostracized by the company.  Paul Binder gave him, face to face, high marks, lending the impression that he was a clown they were looking for, but he was not invited back. Frontline, how would you like to go under this big top?

It reminded me a little of the glum dry book, Mud Show, a big seller that followed the dreary lives of circus people on the old Hoxie show, but failed to evoke the magic of circus. 

Tackling the Big Screen, Not

Cirque du Soleil collaborated with famed film director James Cameron (Titanic) for a screen treatment of the show, Worlds Away 3D.  A barrage of negative notices complained of it coming off as a tired and and hollow advertisement for a lot of emotionally empty action. Rotten Tomatoes gives the video a rousing 47%, and that, kids, marks a critical flop.

Next, to be explored in greater detail: The recent Big Apple Circus date, streaming its latest show into hundreds of movie shows, nationwide.

What in the world happened to this bold and revolutionary misfire?