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

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

End of the Year, Randomly on Parade: Big Top Bits, Past, Present, and Maybe Future ...

    IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER, such as the stack of notes and e-mails too long ignored on a shelf I lazily glance at now and then. But now for each, it’s gloss it or toss it time.  I’m giving these little snatches of sawdust and spangly things one final chance to be something across my loyal 2008 Del Vostro keyboard, to which I am hopelessly attached, using it only for Word Perfect drafts. 

      LET THE GREAT HAROLD RONK blow the first whistle on this impromptu grab bag laid bare.  And let this be the Ronk fondly revealed by Don Covington in an a-mail to me dated September 9, 2016.  It was too too good ever to let languish. Now, finally, it’s up and ready to roll.   Harold, shared Don, became “a vital part of my perception of circus.”  While working on the Big Apple Circus, Don  enjoyed hosting Harold whenever he came out to take in a performance during the Chicago date (yes, they once toured).

     ENGLAND'S BELOVED RINGMASTER, Norman Barrett was one season Big Apple’s man in red. The retired Harold was Big Apple’s red letter patron in the seats, and after the show he approached  Barrett with pleasure.  “I have always wanted to meet you.” Likewise, too, from the other gratefully in return.  Don added Paul Binder to the circle, and Paul recounted how Harold, under Madison Square Garden spotlights, had “epitomized the ideal ringmaster.”  All of which “overwhelmed” Ronk, as Don remembers, the Ronk who by then  wasn’t sure anyone would still remember him.  He spent  the afternoon with Buckles and Barbara Woodcock.  “It was a magical day,” wrote Don.  Ringling’s iconic ringmaster passed away the following year.

 ... I WILL FOREVER RECALL the stoutly commanding figure cut by Ronk for Ringling, the brief and fleeting time it took him, and his smooth soaring voice against a crashing follow spot or two, as if answering its cue, to officially thunder CHILDREN    OF  A L L L L L  AGES !  Never was a circus more blazingly unfurled ... Al Ringling, when once describing the proper decorum of the man with whistle  — “elusive yet vital” --- was describing  the Harold yet to be.  How lucky was I to have lived through his prime.           

: Next down the stack, from Anonymous (whom I know well),  retelling with relish chapter two of quad mania over Ringling.  Giddy Irvin Feld,  seen here, in 1982 trumpeted the first star to nail the feat, Miguel Vazquez.  Six  seasons later, Feld's son Kenneth added Rueben Caballero, Jr. to the show in a  cynical move to grab more headlines.    Only once did both Miguel and Reuben spin four circles beside each other  — what a spectacle to see! .... The tension between the two and their respective families became so great, that an explosion nearly rocked the Oakland arena, site of a “a massive brawl” backstage, and sent shock waves through the circus grapevine.

     REMEMBERING THE BLOODY OUTCOME,  wrote A,  “Our old friend Marcks hanging around the lot had gotten the juicy details and found it quite humorous that the daughter Veronica (Caballero)  had whacked Miguel in the face, sending him to the hospital.”  A furious Kenneth Feld fired the Caballeros on the spot, but they eventually charmed a flight path back into Feld’s favor ...  Does anybody still do the quad? ...  There was a time when the flying trapeze dominated audience satisfaction.  Fundamental to  fabulous, they were the best way to bring the show to a rousing climax.

      ABOUT MY BEST CIRCUS FRIEND EVER, Don Marcks (until we sadly had a wordless falling out), how I valued his company, we were so damn different, hut CIRCUS kept us viably and vividly connected, the phone calls were long, never boring, my visits to his place a frequent journey into another world more strict and settled.  The New England born Don specialized in outward restraint, but he did let go a tad when up close and off the lots, venting his real thoughts on this or that  act. And, as you can see from the above,  he turned discreetly gleeful over backyard drama circling the rumor mills   He loved to ride a juicy disclosure with a backward lift into an almost apologetic giggle.

    FROM MY CAVE MAN SCRIBBLES on a piece of paper, I can now report, that in the higher halls of academically supported circus-type learning (non binary certified, I assume), it is claimed that in every state in this here union there is now at least one circus school.  And what, may I inelegantly ask, do they have to show for themselves?  They now have the example of Circus Jeventas, signed by Cirque du Soliel to serve as a “talent development center” for the Montreal monster ....  This, if anything, will likely produce more fringe circus converts being taught how to give the public a few good circus acts — without the circus.
most of the best ones flourish in communist countries, maybe the harsher atmosphere is more conducive to the demanding discipline needed to produce something more than a few pleasant rollovers on the fluffy fabrics ... Can you spell Russia?  CHINA?  Even the very democratic UK, land of circus invention, has two major teaching centers --- London’s National Center for Circus Arts, and Circommedia in Bristol.  And they're turning out committed young graduates, 93% of whom are still working in circuses three years after graduation. Now, I’d say this calls for one of ringmaster Ronk’s classic  exhortations:  W A T CH    T H E M ! 


     BUT HOLD YOUR WHISTLE,  Sir Harold! Most of those graduates are unlikely  to end up under the commercial big tops, reported a valued contributor to this blog, Douglas McPherson,  in an in-depth he wrote on the subject for The Stage.  Here, I am belatedly drawing from his story, safely held in my stack:  “British  circus schools emerged from the ‘new circus’ sector''”  And that, of course, means a kinder gentler circus without cherry pie (raising canvas, peddling popcorn, etc.)  Many of the graduates, notes Douglas, will join up with Cirque du Soleil or Seven Fingers, or Circa, or start up their own  companies.  England’s leading circus lords who value audience size and ticket price still comb eastern Europe and South America for the best talent ... I suspect that Russia and China are iffy these days given international politics ...  


     MCPHERSON KEEPS ME IMPRESSIVELY APPRISED  on the sawdust scene his way, such as when he sent me a you tube of the complete performance of a wham bang show, Circus Xtreme --  the surprise highlight of my circus going in 2022, all of which occurred in You Tube land.  Not under a real tent?  How I wanted to take in the ever-lovable Zoppe  Family, but not on the day they played 50 miles north under 90+ degrees inside a tent. I am no longer a kid who walks miles to see a circus while power-snacking on Ding Dongs and Twinkies.  

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST: The passing of a major critical voice in the circus arts was  Ernest Albrecht, who left us this past year, and with him, his thoughtful  magazine Spectacle.  I will miss his voice.  His perspective.  I particularly  enjoyed comparing his reviews against those of the sharp London critic,  Liz Arratoon, when both reviewed  Monte Carlos Circus Festivals.  A double pleasure ... Albrecht’s  last review may have been the one he did of Circus Sarasota, shortly before the outset of Corona, after which he was never heard from again.  He had  many qualms with the show, supposing the producers had drained the bulk of their kitty on two star attractions, with the rest being very ordinary.  Here is one of them:
     “A JUGGLING ACT CALLED GET THE SHOE never really got very interesting.  While the title of the act suggests something creative and comical, the two young men who work the act are, unfortunately, almost totally lacking  in stage presence ... nothing more than sloppy juggling mixed with marital arts."

    HOW ARC IS YOUR CHARACTER?  Beware what you may wish for: Albrecht covered circuses of all ilk, and was an advocate for what he called the New American Circus in his book of the same name.  To its pages flocked the young, eager to get on with the times.   But, the movement Albrecht  helped give voice and printed page to may have gone too far even for his taste.  He suffered a jaw-dropping discovery in the pages of Circus Talk when one of its more sophisticated reviewers complained about the muddled impression of one performer’s “character  arc.” You did not wish for it to go this far, Ernest?  The term is used in theater. Albrecht became nearly unhinged over the audacity of such an expectation.  And by extension, I'd say,  over how far the “new circus” movement had veered into theater land.  


     IN THE GARDEN OF NUCLEAR SNOW CONES:  Perhaps it had to happen, my being reminded of a depressing fact, that out there are shows that hurt rather than help American big tops.  At the top of the list is Garden Bros. Could be Dick or Niles.  It’s still Garden.  Ringmaster and more Tim Tegge, merely chatting about the season with me on the phone, did not exactly intend it that way when marveling over how well their Nuclear Circus is doing. He was awed by the "huge tent, " mighty impressive on the lot, "lit up like a Christmas tree at night." Most enthused about clown Hector Frias.   Music of course recorded. Without a ringmaster,  a rather formless affair with some good-enough acts. "I thought it was OK at best."  

    WHY HAD I NOT HEARD THE WORD Nuclear attached to circus? Perhaps I had, but ran into the word “Garden” and knee-jerk deleted the whole thing ... So ... I checked out reviews on Yelp, dreadfully savage one star slams for the most part. Free kiddie tickets lured parents into “a money pit.” $60 seats, ringside. $12 snow cone jobs, any side.  Pony rides and paint-on faces cheering on the moppets to beg for more. "No ring leader," lamented some.  Dancing dames in thongs sexing up space between acts.  Disgusted parents baling  at intermission.  Some did grant satisfaction with the acts.  Many ranted against animal mistreatment, a horse being whipped.   Okay, let me wrap this here:  This kind of a show does incalculable harm to public perception of the America circus, and it continues to drag down what’s left of it.  And I think the American public at large has been talked into  degrees of indifference or total rejection, possibly unmatched in any other country. Thank you Tim, for the inadvertent reality check. 

      I'M HAVING, OR WAS HAVING so much fun, now I wish there was more.  But there isn’t other than to say — to Don Covington on this side of the pond, Douglas McPherson on the other -- my deepest thanks for the stream of links and news items you send my way.   Thank you, too, Tanbark Titan Tim and  Awesomely Anonymous -- whomever you are, for your insightful comments. I have a new respect for the slush pile, and this next year, I’m letting it grow slushier, fatter, and may do a periodic purge to page, but then, but then ...

    NEXT YEAR SHOULD BE BIG,  at least in the headlines, for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is coming back, in some form or another. Tim sees a train wreck in the making.  I see Cirque du Soleil on steroids.  Neither of us sees The Greatest Show on Earth.  And You?  Kenneth Feld fired all the animal acts, likely to win a gold medal from PETA.  But he may lose a large and loyal audience base out there that has no problem with dogs and horses and may resent the total absence of a menagerie.  How can you return if it's not you returning?

Let me me wish you all a happy New Year!   

WHY I STILL MISS CIRCUS REPORT:  Like a flickering light in the darkening shadows, it gave us the shows and the write-ups, the obits and those wonderful routes that made every fragile thing still very real ... Like a lone red wagon up streets of indifference, it kept on rolling.  Like the single light bulb raised to illuminate Foley & Burke flat cars down by the old ice house, as  late into the night its ride wagons came rumbling down the runs for their trek out to the fairgrounds ...  The lots grew less crowded, the tents smaller, the parade thinner,  but Circus Report kept that one flickering light aglow.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

How to Enjoy The Original Sound of Music -- Like it or Not: West End DVD of Live Broadcat, a Sublime Treat

Would you like your sound of music with a little less sugar, a bit more spice?  With a few songs on the sassier, more sophisticated side?  Could you take it with Julie taking the night off, and another winning face being your Maria? And how about a running time clocking in at a lean two hours rather than three?

I may have the ticket for you!  I've just discovered The Sound of Music Live, 2015, from the UK.    Directed to the point by Coky Giedroyc, this version follows the original script and brings back a couple of great songs that were dropped from the movie.  This one will give you a good idea of what the show was really like at the very beginning ... So let's make that the perfect place to start, okay? 

A LITTLE BACKGROUND: When the musical opened on Broadway in 1959, it was met with glowing first-night notices from first string critics ---“a show of rare enchantment” ... “An utterly captivating work”' .. “The loveliest musical imaginable.”  And derided by sugar-averse anti-sentimentalists.  Complained Walter Kerr on this side of the pond, “it becomes not only too sweet for words, but almost too sweet for music..  And on the other side, Kenneth Tynan declared it  “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Great Leap Backward."

A DARKNESS SUBTLY FELT: Its detractors may have missed or overlooked the darkening shadows of Nazi aggression (circa 1938) that do loom a little in the wings, dramatized by Hitler’s underlings pushing for Captain Von Trapp to get with the program.  They may also have ignored the contrasting bite of two sophisticated songs, "No Way to Stop It" and "How Can Love Survive." 

HOLLYWOOD SUNNY SIDE UP UP UP.  On balance, this overworking charmer when it first hit the boards spread good will in shameless abundance, and it only became more relentlessly sweet when Hollywood turned it into a phenomenal success.  Today, some call it the world’s favorite movie.  Now, in the words of Mr. Tynan, suffering a glucose meltdown, happy talk in the alps was “singing in the syrup.” Incredibly, it left behind those two deliciously worldly songs that  provided cynical relief.         

TURNING R&H TO SAINTHOOD:   This transformation on the silver screen began with the omission of “A Lonely Room” from the 1955 film version of Oklahoma, and continued on in The King & I, whose wittiest song,  “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?, was a blistery rebuke sung by Ana to the domineering King. The number was either banned from the shooting script or left on the cutting room floor.  If Dick and Oscar were bothered by their critics, they only stood to antagonize them more by not pushing to keep these sobering songs in tact.   Damn those two larks still learning to pray!  

RELIEF FROM ACROSS THE POND.  To the rescue of score preservation came the Brits. Trevor Nunn’s inspired 1999 staging, of Oklahoma restored “A Lonely Room” to the lineup. Jimmy Johnston, the gifted  actor who played Jud, gave it a harrowing rendition for the ages. Possibly the most dramatic moment I’ve ever spent at a musical.  My only problem with Nunn’s direction is that he tends to overplay his hand in realism by underlining dialogue and fostering too many reprises of songs and dances.  His staging clocked in at a whopping three hours, exceeding the stage version by a at least a good half hour. I grew restless down the  final stretch. 

 A SOUND OF MUSIC, MORE SMARTLY RESTORED: But another set of West End theater gods favored brevity over bloat in this remarkable 2015 live broadcast production of the team’s last work, The Sound of Music, starring Kara Tointon and Julian Ovenden. And I am now elated to be the holder of my own brand new DVD, having belatedly tracked it down in a google dig.  It clocks in at a tight and terrific one minute less than two hours.

SOPHISTICATION RETURNS:  The two songs left out of the film starring Julie Andrews have not only been restored, they have been blessed with witty choreography that gives each a joyfully satiric edge. The captain’s house servants whoop it up (subtly, of course) in “How Can Love Survive,” slyly self-mocking their fawning over the pampered class in snidely hilarious fashion. So, too, do they make a merry romp out of “No Way to Stop It.”   

 Ballet of the saucy servants: How Can Love to Survive

Warning to fans of the movie: Songs have been re-positioned to their original order, and his may irate you, as it seems to many Andrews fans. 

ONE BIG RESTORATION INSULT:  Oddly, the producers did not reinstate a lovely ballad from the original show, “An Ordinary Couple,” but inexplicably retained a dreadfully inane ditty, “Something Good,” composed for the movie. Richard Rodgers without Oscar concocted his own feeble lyric. He was said not to have liked “An Ordinary Couple.” I have message into the producer, ITV, asking why they kept it  in.  So far, no reply.

Music theater fans should find this Sound of Music a gem to treasure . It is by the far the closest I have seen to the original show, the one Variety in its out of town notice called “a sensational musical.”

HOW TO LIVE FOR A MOMENT WITHOUT JULIE ANDREWS:   So, for all of you fans of the film, here is my suggestion on how to give the stage version a decent chance:  Let go of the movie for a moment, allow yourself to inhabit the character of Maria as defined by Tointon.  You may learn to like her on her own.  The Captain, played splendidly well by Ovendon, is another new face to enjoy. The entire cast is essentially spot on.   Give the revived songs a chance.  You sill have the movie!  And Julie Andrews is still in it! And you now have the stage show, too.    

How luckily for us that Dick and Oscar's first and last musicals have been lovingly restored in the land where a stiff upper lip can sometimes produce a more uplifting experience.