Sunday, December 31, 2023

And the Parade Still Goes On ... Some Year-End Mussings ...

 "We await your views, " he wrote, earlier this year about a somewhat controversial subject concerning Monte Carlo. He wanted to remain in the background.  I only share this because it was one of the nicest things ever said to me -- and by a man whose background in the circus I admire and respect.  He and I might differ on things, and both could be right. A review is only one person's opinion. Yes, I felt flattered, but also maybe appreciated for what I have tried to do, ever since first getting published in the white Tops in my fourteenth year -- a review not without a little nit picking, its mere publication perhaps codifying my critical nature and giving me sanction to proceed. 

Yes, for some, I am too negative. Maybe a fair shot. Trouble is, I have a hard time spinning, that is in turning out circus notcies. Were I employed by the same show to work press and ballyhoo,I would switch roles and try doing my best to play up the positives, as I did for Sid Kellner's James Bros. Circus and, a few years later, for his George Matthew's Great London.  "Peerless performers from Piccadilly!" I shamelessly promised.

Circus remains to many an idyllic subject, in the league with Easter and the Fourth of July -- a  holiday for children, beyond the serious scrutiny imposed on the other arts.  After all, a child is seeing for the first time what we have come to expect for generations. We love to be ballyhooed, as we love to be courted.  Yes, favor and flatter us with grandiose visions --- we know what comes to town will probably not live up to them all, but oh how glorious those posters! How thrilling the sights!

Reviewing circus has, believe it or not, never been more challenging or fun or interesting for me. I like facing another test -- how to approach another likely variation on the "ageless delight"in the age of human-only spectacles.  

I only wish there were more people in the circus community willing to put out reviews.  It would be healthier for everyone.  


Thursday, December 28, 2023

Circus of a Hodgepodge: Roncalli At Big Apple Sparkles in Spots, Stumbles through Weak Direction and Focus

Uupdate: 12.29  See End Ringers ***

You Tube Review
Journey to the Rainbow
Roncali Theater-Circus and Big Apple Circus
At Lincoln Center through mid-January

Tickets: $19.95 – $89.95 ringside, plus $4.95 fee. VIP packages available, from $130, plus $7.95 fee

     BE FOREWARNED: I could not clearly see a couple of acts behind a tent tower, blame it on the guy taking the film illegally, who put himself and thus me, too, behind it.  So, this must be considered a rough first draft of what might have been a more valid review, had I been there in person to see it for myself. Nor do I find the names of the acts on the website, thus the few missing here. And any of my comments are subject to revision upon discovery of lifelines being used. Okay, so here we go —  on with another stab at another kind of variation on circus!

    REVIEWING THE COMPLETE two hour program, excluding intermission, what struck me the most, given all the gush about it from fans and the adoring  New York Times critic  is how ineptly staged and paced it is. Then again, how do you direct such a scattered hodgepodge?  In its favor, the lineup now and then sparkles with some noteworthy turns, then slogs along through sluggish prop changes, fashion show walkarounds, prolonged bows and milked encores, and extensive dancing sequences in-between, as to make it feel as if the circus is sharing the ring with an out-of-work dance troupe. Nor will the moderately amusing old-school European clowning, too much of it staged in the seats, thrill everybody straining to see it. Terrible sight lines!

            Not any old hoofers.  They're the "Broadway Dancers"                                         

    SHOW HAS A LIVELY BAND (even Ringling no longer has one) hearkening back in style to older fashioned, and  rises on occasion to ride the drama inherent in certain of the acts — reminding us of the primal force of unencumbered circus.

     CHASING BUBBLES: At the outset, the program proposes to take us on a journey to the rainbow, which, I assume, means the dazzling multitude of colorful lighting effects that splash in and out --- not all the other extraneous fluff, together consuming  a good half hour more than need be. 


     THE CIRCUS  IN THIS MORASS  impressively offers a number of winning entries that manage to break through the fru fru and give us what we came for.  They include ---- envelopes, please! — Geoffrey Berhault a fellow working on two cris crossing low wires, executing both backward and forward somersaults and showing a flair I would like to have seen more of  — after spending almost as much time before the act, setting it up himself; vaulting acrobatics; a captivating juggler named Geoffrey Berhault who wows the crowd; and, top of the heap, a single trap flyer who ranks an A  rating on my sheet.  Here, the band gives him the kind of dramatic scoring that such an act deserves. The show’s high point, and smartly placed near the end. Curiously, I can't find a photo of this singular performer.

     FOR NOVELTY the enormous floating "basket”, as they are calling this newer number, with a bike rider inside it circling above, again tickled  my fancy, as it did at Zoppe. This particular  basket seemed to tip a little more ominously  from side to side, hinting at a tension payoff that I did not get from Zoppe. And such an utterly pleasant prop.   Watch it rise in the extremes and take off in circus rings around the word.

    RONCALLI'S STATED MISSION in Journey, "to embody a new kind of circus that is less death-defying and more artistic," is perfectly in sync with menagerie-free trends.  Then why oh why, the most unexpected feature in the form of three polar  bears on all fours lumbering into the ring, to dabble on and around teeter-boards?  Talk about in-your-face bizarre. HELLO000? Sorry, those animals are no longer allowed in here!  No, they are not real animals, but costumed performers, which, what, makes them perfectly acceptable to a woke world that sickened to the point of knee jerk intolerance over the slightest media reports of alleged circus animal cruelty?  Such a fitting insertion to a jumbled parade that can’t make up its mind what it really wants to be  I’d say old time variety stage revue.

    GO FOR THE BEST MOMENTS and be patient. It’s the most we can hope for in  these war torn days under our rattled  big tops.   In my book, Big Apple Circus won’t fully rebound until it can put on a show successful enough at the ticket windows to spread its wares like all commercial circuses do. Since when did a successful property that opened in New York not, in making it there, make it anywhere --- as the song goes?  BAC once did, all the way up to  Boston.  I remember seeing them in May at Cunningham Park, the idyllic setting. They have become slaves to the allure of Lincoln Center and Broadway.     

    END RINGERS: Who directs what?  There are so many CEOs and director titles between the two companies, is ANYBODY really in charge?  There’s Marty LaSalle, former BAC juggler, listed as BAC CEO. There's Patrick Philadelphia, Roncalli Company Group CEO, given credit for directing.  But  then  there’s Geoffrey Berhault, who also gets directing credit in another write up.  No wonder the fractured result ... Any circus is far better seen  in person than on video, which is why I am holding back and watching the complete Ringling show on You Tube, but will wait for it to come this way ... I suppose we can thank these interlopers with cameras making the movies, and consider that You Tube allows them through some sort of consent by the circuses themselves ... So .... what next, You Tube?  Oh, I know what next.  I saw a complete Russian Circus from 2018, at the Old Circus arena in Moscow. Talk about a stunning rebuke to the prevailing makeup of U.S. and UK shows.  You wouldn't  believe.  Oh,you already saw it!?  Hot tip: Speak "Russian circus 2018 on You Tube" into your Comcast mike

*** If you watch the Russian video, beware:  Show starts off with a ponderous and overly long cage act and early on, wire walking performers strapped to life lines galore.  But from there on out, it takes of.

Step Right Up and Keep That Day Job!

Due out later next year, Showbiz David's next book

 Keep That Day Job!
How to Enjoy Chasing Show Business  in Vain

From the fifty (yes, fifty) jobs  he held down to keep the pay checks coming in, author and playwright David Lewis regales readers with a fast-moving panorama of workplace America.

Driven by his all-American dream of a Broadway opening night,  Keep That Day Job  takes you on a wild ride back and forth, between cleaning out rental cars in Oakland and dining high on Park Avenue with New York literary agent Bertha Klausner and Clare Booth Luce. Between being chauffeured around Moscow while researching for a book on Russian Circus and, back in Oakland, chauffeuring Kaiser Steel clients from and to the airport.  Between walking a rail yard one night recording box car numbers, and the next, meeting with French mime Marcel Marceau to discuss a Mother Goose screenplay. Between typing out letters for a chemical company in Hollywood and being handed a rave review in Variety for his new musical Those Ringlings.

From prune picking to circus clowning, press agent to roller skating instructor to bank teller, night-shift doorman, house painter — and, finally, to  “accidental librarian” for Oakland’s largest law firm, the amusing twists and turns keep coming.

Stay tuned for more ahead.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Surprise! Animal Rights Activist Learns to “Like ” New Non-Circus Ringling --- All Except for a Ghostly Robotic Nightmare ...

"I never thought I would say this, but I like the circus."

Thus proclaims our guide to the proper attitudes suitable for  taking in a new kind of Greatest Show on Earth.  She  is Ashley Webster Babcock of Maine, known for her work that focuses on the relationship between humans, animals, and environments. Her credentials make her the ideal reviewer for what  the Felds are now up to.

But the heavenly relief I imagine  her feeling in an animal-free show was jolted by a totally unexpected invader from the older, more vulgar world now under lock down —  when a robotic dog invaded the tent, causing our charmed  critic to cringe like a petrified senior snow flake. 

"Children and adults of all ages definitely will have nightmares tonight about Bailey the robot dog, who dons a pink mohawk and matching pom-pom poodle tail and a face that resembles that of the Teletubbies’ vacuum cleaner. Bailey and slapsticker Nick Nack hold a dance-off, the winner of which is unclear”

Perhaps a little pre-performance counseling for those entering  with residual anxieties from past encounters in real circus lands?  

She was there in a crowd of 4,000 on opening day down in Louisiana, and now reviews the show in the latest issue of Esquire.

 A sampling of her notice: "A ten-person dance troupe performs a fusion folk dance, and three people stacked atop one another skip rope. There are lots of interesting haircuts."

Her long essay, which covers Ringling history in modern times, feels like a straining intellectual struggle to justify a new kind of acrobatic show that dares not speak its previous name. (The C word)  In a nation called America, were far-left revolutionaries are redefining realities as deeply rooted in science as gender, to the point of practically outlawing pronouns, will “ circus.” too, become such a scorned  word?

Babcock looks back with collegial ambivalence, and now is relieved to look forward to what she and her kind are ready to accept.  Happy to quote PETA attorney Brittany Peet, who granted: “I think I’m going to take my nephews to the circus. I never would have thought that would be something I was saying.”

Will this new GSOE flood the gates with members of the above clique?  I wouldn't bet on it.   But the  Felds already have their audience base of Disney on Ice patrons to play to. Could be an easy win-win for both.

This is, yes, one hell of a chapter in American circus history — if you happen to believe that “circus” has a distinctive meaning all its own.  Trust me: children still LOVE performing animals.  And trust me, children still LOVE the clowns. And so do adults.  

When John Ringling North sold the show to the Felds in 1967, he made known his belief in “their concern and dedication to maintain the concept, traditions and artistic standards inherent in the world-famous title The Greatest Show on Earth."
The word inherent, as defined: Existing in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute.

What would Irvin Feld think of all this?   I remember him in old program magazines gong  on about the family feeling a pride in being “stewards of the circus.”

For me, the issue is not how good the show is or how well it may fare.  A far greater issue is with the Ringling name and legacy, and how the Felds are reducing it in scope to a vapid shadow of what it once was, when under other less rattled or regulated  big tops around the world,  grateful family crowds are still waiting to take in what we call CIRCUS.

 Kenneth Feld's conscience?

Saturday, December 09, 2023

Enter Ballet. Exit Daring-Do. Shunned in Some Countries, Celebrated in Others ... Real Circus Is Not Going Away ...

     CIRCUS, WHATEVER you may wish to believe it means, to some it means the bloody gore of Circus Maximus, where Christians were fed to the lions and chariot races stormed around the hippodrome track.

     TO OTHERS, CIRCUS IS, as so described in my Merriam Webster's dictionary, a show combining   “feats of physical skill, wild animal acts, and performances by clowns” — the form invented by English horse rider Philip Astley over 250 years ago.  

     TO THAT, P.T. BARNUM, teaming up with James. A. Bailey, added his name and rings to call it the Greatest Show on Earth.  One ring or three, it was clearly defined by the three essential elements, listed above.

     SINCE THEN, ANIMAL PROTECTION societies and the creepy clown novels of Stephen King have driven animals and clowns from most of the rings in the U.S. and the UK.  Russia would not bend, and China did not have to, rarely if ever presenting animals or clowns in its acrobatic shows.  Let this put your fears to rest.  

     THUS WERE THE TENT FLAPS thrown wide open to people from ballet and theater, eager to save the old circus from itself – from its vulgar clowning and abused animals, as they would have you believe. To show circus artists how to bow with an overplayed  humility that is false, like ballet gods at the start and end points of their acts.  And on the highest level, to convey “character arcs” as in a play.  Con Colleano of old knew how to dash in, twirl his cape and quickly take to the wire.  How might his passion have been revised into stilted and pretentious through the cirque mills of Montreal?  He and the best of his ilk knew how to shade their acts with choreography, and how not to become a slave to the shading  They we re proud to be circus artists.    

     WHAT THIS LED TO is more ballet (or dance) on the ground, and in the air, more protection with safety wires.  In-between the two intrusions, the edge of circus is being softened to the impotent elegance of a classroom practice session.  How would you feel over the embarrassing spectacle of a group of pole climbing acrobats from China, all wired up?  I saw this on one of the Monte Carlo You Tubes. Yes, Monte Carlo.  Suddenly, mechanics are becoming a widely accepted part of the act.  

    SO ... IS THE CIRCUS ASTLEY  created  approaching its demise? I doubt this, there are too many reasons to enjoy the funny faces and the dancing dogs, etc.  And the evidence out there of this is too overwhelming to believe otherwise.  I am not pipe dreaming in a bubble.  I have You Tube’s insatiable appetite for circus shows on my side.

     RINGLING NO LONGER calls itself a circus, a shocking yet honest deletion.  They are no longer a circus anymore than the Chinese Acrobats are alone a circus They are a show, like Five Fingers is a show.  This is a story whose impact on the still standing real circuses will take time to play out. One thing is certain.  Funny faces are not going away, and neither will performing dogs and seals and horses. They thrive in Russia and parts of Europe, and dare to soldier on over here, as witness the Zoppee Family Circus, which recently played a 80-show stand in Redwood City, CA. Life at its core has a way of going on. 


Friday, December 08, 2023


by skill and strength only ... by skill and strength only

Sunday, December 03, 2023

SUNDAY MORNING NOW: Minus Media Reviews for New Ringling, UK Critic Takes a Deep Dive into You Tubes, and Finds It "The Greatest Circus on Earth"

A friend to this blog, London-based entertainment reporter and critic Douglas McPherson covers circus among other topics for a number of publications, including The Stage and The Daily Mail. He is as perplexed as I by the lack of media reviews for the new Greatest Show on Earth, so he took it upon himself to watch a number of You Tubes out there of the complete performance of the show, and he loves what he sees, with minor reservations.  Here is a link to the notice he posted on his blog:



In a followup e-mail I sent to Douglas, asking him what he thought of the music,  he responded, and added a few more thoughts on the show:

'The music, I thought, was well suited to the mood of each act. Apart from the theme song, I didn't notice it too much, but that probably only means that it was not distracting from the action. An act I didn't mention in the review by the way but I maybe ought to add in was a springboard act, which went very high. On the subject of Wesley (Williams), I've just reviewed a UK show on the blog called Planet Circus and I was talking about how only a very few circus performers seem to put their personalities into an act and connect with the audience as individuals. But I noticed that Wesley really does do that. Especially in the ensemble numbers or where he's giving background support to another act, he really makes an effort to engage the audience and put his enthusiasm across. He definitely has charisma."
This is most interesting.  It suggests that Wesley may be giving the performance a more intimately human quality.


I have resisted watching You Tubes of the full show because I would rather see it ideally in person, when it gets out here next year, if it does.  Which is why I am glad I made the effort recently to take in a live performance of Zoppe Family Circus, reviewed a few posts down.  I am sure I felt a more emotional connection to the show, being there, than I would have felt in front of a flat screen.