Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Still a Few of Our Favorite Things ... A Sweet Little Show Tune Conquered the World of Jazz ... Now the Holidays Call

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bight copper kettles and warm woolen mittens    

I first heard those words from the voice of Mary Martin on the original cast album of The Sound of Music, broadcast on our radio one Sunday evening in late December, only a few weeks after the show had opened on Broadway to great reviews.    A week or so later, I had in hand my own copy of the snowy white cast album. Decorated in delicate foliage, in colors gold and red and green,  how like a lovely Christmas morning gift it felt.   In a few weeks, it would reach the number one spot on Billboard’s Best Selling Albums and remain there for 16 straight weeks. Sometimes at the skating rink during club practice, they played it.

Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

In those sunnier days, Rodgers and Hammerstein were the gods of musical theatre, able to capture in song the widely shared sentiments of Americans.  One evening in the early 1950s, a televised toast to their magic was broadcast simultaneously on ALL three major networks.  Point made?

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles   

I could never have known how fate would coddle and guide this musical up a most remark road, gradually cementing its charms into the hearts of Americans.  The movie that followed a few years later achieved a phenomenal success.  Two words may have spelled its everlasting lock on our hearts: Julie Andrews.  Years later, people flock to movie houses to participate in a sing-along of the songs as they appear on the screen. 

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes

In 1961, through the soprano sax of jazz musician John Coltrane, My Favorite Things became an almost instant classic, and would become Coltrane's most requested song ever, and his personal favorite of all his recordings. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988 and certified gold in 2018.

A few magical days ago, while listening to a local FM adult contemporary station that plays non-stop Christmas music every season, came the sweetest young voice singing the song.  And I felt a rare connection between that night long ago, listening to Mary Martin, and now, hearing the song from a new voice on the radio, making it feel like a perfect addition to  the holiday cannon, as if it had always been there.

Silver white winters that melt into springs ...

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Back to the Basics at Big Apple Circus Strikes a Welcome Chord with The New York Times

Here is good news for Nik Wallenda’s vision of circus.  He has the Old Gray Lady on his side – as  usually she seems to be around visiting big tops of all sizes and styles.

I would like to have reprinted the entire review, but dare not risk running afoul of copyright laws.

The Times recurring reviewer, Alexis Soloski, who has a way of massaging average into awesome, once again goes to work on the sunny side.   To her anxious eyes, for example, the sight of a mechanic (lifeline)  protecting single trap aerialist Eli Huber comes as a relief.
As for the scaled back Wallenda display, notes Soloski,  it  “seems to fly with just a bit more care.” And that’s quite okay with her. And quite a  statement, amounting to the most bizarre allusion yet to a wire walking routine performing in a manner it never comes close to. In fact, the Wallendas can barely walk the wire this year, their movements over it are are so tediously slow.

Nor was Solski offended by a  gross side show-esque spectacle of a man swallowing a good dozen razor blades, but merely moved to be a good mother, whispering to her children, “Don’t ever try this.”  

First and foremost, our Times critic loved Alan Silva’s diving roll-overs on the fabrics. And she had but one quibble with the show --- the extensive ring stays of comedy man Johnny Rocket, who takes up “arguably too much space. Three appearances might have been enough.”
All of which marks a “swift return” of wonder. Director Philip Wm McKinely wins basic kudos for the  “brisk, back-to-basics experience ... smaller and less glitzy than Ringling, but brimming with pizzazz.”

“If the show doesn't’ tell a story,” writes Soloski,  the Dream Big theme implies “that anyone might want to grow up and join the circus, particularly those who grew up in it.”

Once again, the show won a Critic's Pick from the Times.  

As I have argued here, it is much healthier  for a circus to get a wide range of reviews, as does the stage and cinema.  Keep in mind, there are, or were, a few You Tubes out there of the complete performance.  Feel free to post your mini reviews right here!  And do check out Douglas McPherson's knowing notice from across the Big Pond, at Circus Mania, a link to it found on the right bar.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Big Apple Circus "Lame Acts" Panned in First Legit Review of the Show

by Toby Zinman,chief theater critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer,
writing for A Dilettante at Large Review - Phindie, November 21

 Where are the great acts I remembered? The trained cats? the galloping horses? the iron men? the Wheel of Death? the gasp-inducing trapeze tricks? the genuinely funny (and not scary) clowns?  

For years I’ve been recommending the Big Apple Circus: rave reviews about the charm, the wholesomeness, the thrills, the old-fashioned fun of this circus  when, each year, it raises its big top at Lincoln Center in New York. But not this year.  Amateurish, with lame acts (and shocking prices), this year’s show was a disappointment. The kids in the audience has a loud and happy good time, and that, I suppose is what counts, but their parents and grandparents were not so delighted.

The theme was “Dream Big” and most of the video projections behind the live acts were clips of interviews with the performers. What they all had in common was that they had no need to dream of running away with the circus; they were all born into the life, with generations of aerialists, or jugglers or clowns behind them.  

Tiny poodles jump over their trainer’s foot. A descendant of the Flying Wallendas and various relatives walk across a tight-rope at glacial speed. Hula hoops are twirled from every body part. A magician swallows many razor blades in a creepy don’t-try-this-at-home demonstration. The clown with a shrill voice and gigantic mohawk encourages the children to cheer him on and boo the villain. And they do. And that’s nice, but nobody wants to go to the circus for an earnest lecture on bullying.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Little Apple Falling: Skimpy Lineup, Frugally Staged, Renders Big Apple Circus a Curously Sad Also-Ran

Revised, 11.20 6:30 PST

Added, 11.22 9:40 AM, END RINGERS, at the end of this post. Free weekly shows now being offered. 

Revised in italics, 11.26 10:36 AM.

Circus Review
Big Apple Circus, Dream Big, at Lincoln Center.

Directed by Philip Wm McKinley

On You Tube, a complete performance, apparently unedited, filmed on November 12. Please note: Removed from the current website are photos of the acts, only a few of their names mentioned. Thus, some are missing from this notice.

 A large red curtain fairly covered the ring as I entered, and my expectations were charged.  What might follow?

What followed once the show began was a ring filled with a dozen performers cast in a picturesque , Old World setting,  practicing their acts together, and so I was hooked and wanted more.

More, sorry to say, was not to come – not what I wanted more to be. The spirit of community that opened the show was no where to be found thereafter, for in one very lonely ring, every one of the acts that followed, except for the very last one, was solo.

And the entrancing opening stage picture  soon vanished into a muddled, talky talky morass of mediocrity. To  be sure and fair, a  few acts deliver mid-level satisfaction, such as the modestly charming little dogs of Jill Rapaport; and the rola-rola workout of a young showmanly fellow who produces the expected dread emotions. But others, like single trap performer Elli Huber, who works from a mechanic (lifeline) do little if anything to serve the wow factor.  In my estimation, the object of such safety renders the act impotent. 

In between, a diminutive ringmaster with a big heart, Alan Silva, and clown Johnny Rocket, sporting a Bella Knock-like hair style, fill up excessive amounts of time in banter and antics, audience involvement too, all very intimate and some of it audible through not the best of sound systems.  At this performance, Rocket established a quick kiddie cult hero status.  I yawned.  The kids giggled in heaps.  Perhaps they, too, sensed welcome comic relief from the inferior parade.   This edition may have some kind of a future Saturday morning on PBS.

And so, I assumed, having yet to spot a stand-out routine on the program, that maybe they were saving the strongest for a big build up in the second half.  How dead wrong was I: Never in a lifetime of sampling circuses of all sizes and manners  have I sat through so do-nothing a second half. 

This humdrum stretch of exceptional mediocrity dragged on through just three segments: hula hoops –– both legit and then clowned up by Mr. Rocket, who thereafter took more leisurely time by refusing to leave the ring.  Following several evictions by the ring director, he was goaded back on by the moppets chanting Johnny!  Johnny!  Johnny Rocket! By now, he seemed to be the only thing they wanted from the show.   If you are under 10, this could be your ticket – I am assuming those kids were not shills.

And finally, to the biggest fizzle of all –  the truncated Wallenda act, so  cautiously and methodically executed as to feel still-born.  Walking pyramid wire acts may have lost the power to thrill,  as audiences find greater excitement aloft in  fast-moving daredevilry and gymnastics. Con Colleano proved this back in the 1920s.  The Wallenda’s turn was cut up into segments, so that  the man born of circus nobility who produced this turkey -- that would be Nik Wallenda – could stop the show to indulge himself in talking to the audience about family history, and to tout his famous outdoor walks over canyon and Gotham and sea, and to talk up his next challenge, the setting of which eludes me. Was it the moon?

Production values?  So many credentialed people at work, and so little to show for it. Worst of all, missing is the band, a major asset in better years gone by..  In its place, this from sketchy feedback, there is a violin and possibly a guitar or two, keyboard and drums, half way buried on the balcony above the performer’s entrance. I’m guessing that most of the score comes off CDs.  Never once has any mention been made of the musicians on the stingy website. Director Philip Wm. McKinley, some of whose work on the Ringling show I have much admired, must have felt stranded in so  underwhelming a talent pool.  There does seem to be one recurring motif, performers taking overly long and drawn out bows at the end of their acts when the audience clearly was not in the mood to be milked.

Have I said enough?  Is the show still on the road?

Is there still even a future?

During the five seasons out of bankruptcy that  Big Apple has managed to survive, its variable direction has shifted from strongly traditional to outlandishly risque.

In its best years, founders Paul Binder and Michael Christensen focused on one thing.  The Act, period.  On finding the best ones out there.  They held their own against two other major shows that did the same: Ringling, and cirque du soleil.  Even John Ringling North’s Kelly Miller imported a number  of valid ring stars.

I hope this edition of BAC gets more reviews (it drew virtually none last year), for mine is only that of one person.  There may be others who will see and feel what I failed to see and feel. Already, there is! From London, author and journalist Douglas McPherson, with many circus reviews to his name, has taken a crack at the show  on his bog, Circus Mania, which you can link to on the right bar.  I would encourage you to read it. Douglas, as it urns out, was reviewing a different video.Thus, he got to see the work of Gena Cristiani,  while she did not appear on the one I watched ... 

My problem is that life has spoiled me with some of the greatest circuses – small to big.  And those big tops did the dreaming for me.

Overall rating (4 stars tops)


2 stars, even maybe 2-1/2, would be fairer to the performers. But this is a review of the entire performance, thus the mark downs. 


 END RINGERS: A tent turning over? Pay day barely met?    Before the photos were removed from the website, I recall two fellows from, was it Ethiopia? ... I was astonished, while googling for reviews, to discover the You Tube film of entire show. They would surely have to have obtained  from BAC a license to show.  If so, the act of giving it away suggests a desperation  to be seen and reviewed ... Speaking of which, they are giving it away -- every Tuesday in December, to locals, the item sent here by ever-attentive Don Covington ... The crowd caught on YouTube, from what I could tell from limited sight lines, was of a healthy size ... About solo acts: I looked through some old and recent program magazines for various circuses, picked at random. This is a rough estimate, first number for multi-person acts, the second, for total displays.   Circus Vargas, 2009: 8 of 13;  Big Apple, 2004:  5 of 14;   Polack Bros. 1960: 10 of  22; Clyde Beatty, 1957:  10 of 23; Ringling, 1929  15 of 19; Chimera, 2001: 10 of  16 ... And finally, back to the McPherson review. How much more interesting would the critical reception for any circus be were it met by many reviews.