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

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

A Young Star Rises in a Production True to the Original, and the Real Pal Joey Lives Again

 Just ended at the Altarena Playhouse in Alameda, CA

 Stage Review: Pal Joey

The great joy and payoff in little theater (Community, if you must) is that you will discover great talents that you can easily imagine handling their parts on the boards of Broadway.  And the vast majority of them will never make it there, if even they try.

At 1409 High Street  in charming Alameda, I am, case in point,  talking about a young actor named Nico Jaochico, cast in the role of Joey Evans.  Did I see a star rising at 1409?  This guy, on the hefty side and yet remarkably light on his dancing feet, won me over with his ingratiating showmanship and powerful vocals, playing the part in a production that stays  true to the original 1940 show — how revolutionary!  
Gene Kelly originated the role in the daring-for-its time Rodgers & Hart work, and yet I’m not so sure that I would have liked Kelly more than Nico.  Okay, for dancing, yes.  But as for character?  You see, our charmer-in-chief  has a way of widening has face to practically reach all three sides of Altarena’s three quarter round audience – and sending out a sly glint of spoofery in his eyes. As if to say, let’s not take this too seriously, but kick it around a little and have some fun, okay?  Such that, I ended up rooting more for the actor than the character.  In a Pal Joey world, that’s a good thing.  

In the role, Nico as Joey begins by pitching his  borderline M.C. talents to a small south end Chicago club owner, Mike Spears, played here by Charles Evans in a manner weak on character, which gets things off on a wobbly start. But soon enough, the sparks will fly.  Joey briefly romances lovely Linda English with the score’s one tender song, I could Write a Book; and from there, advances onto Vera Simpson’s bank account. 

She, a jaded, technically married dame from upper society,  sets Joey up with his own night club, and is rewarded with his company, leaving her blissfully “bewitched, bothered, and bewildered ... horizontally speaking, he’s at his very best.” But the spell has a short expiration date. Never have I  heard the song sung so compellingly as it was  here  by the perfectly cast Maria Mikeyenko.

In Act II,  a riotously amusing mobster, essayed to the hilt by Don Kolodny, moves in to engineer a bribe. They’ll ask Vera for lots of money, and if she says no, tip off her hubby to the affair – now languishing on a stale mattress that no longer squeaks sweetly. 

Romance, finis
Your chance, finis
Those ants that invaded your pants, finis

In the end, all of these morally-challenged rascals will go their separate ways.  Funny, I felt a rare affection and sadness for them all. The party was over.  Only was virtuous Linda Evans still fostering a good feeling and face for Joey.  But he is left alone.

The score is a treasure, loaded with high energy songs that pop the champagne on aberrant sophistication.  Had there not been a Joey
would there have been a Chicago?   When  Pal Joey opened in 1940, it was remembered by Richard Rodgers for leaving the audience half raving, half in shock. "Bewitched" was banned from the airwaves for a time.  A musical that vulgar?  Yes, The critics loved it. 

Truth is, it was never close to a major hit drawing large sustaining crowds.  The original production lasted nearly a year,  the much admired 1952 revival a few months longer.  Three since then have all begged for customers, hanging on from one week to a few months.  All come to town peddling “new” scripts that only muck up an essentially naughty and uncomplicated  little romp.

How lucky I was to have seen THIS particular romp.

Credit the smartly faithful direction of Laura Morgan staying true to the original book, with rare exceptions: The song, “I’m Talkin’ to my Pal,” was cut before the show opened in New York. And Altarena dropped a song that did make it all the way to opening night. "Happy Hunting."

Any qualms? Pacing sometimes errs in drawn out and/or stagey set changes.  I was so enthralled with the expedience, I may have overlooked other flaws.

The cast fairly bubbles, with sprightly dancer Jarusha Ariel playing Gladys in the lead. Boffo!    A six piece band, with outstanding musical direction by pianist Armando Fox, excels to the finish line.  I sat there mesmerized by the raw brilliance of those witty and worldly songs.  More musicals, please, Altarena!

The only other stage Joey I can compare this one to, albeit via You Tube, was a  morose, creaky revival in 2008, enslaved in yet another lugubrious new libretto, at the Roundabout in New York. "I
n mourning for its own lifelessness," reviewed The New York Times. It clucked on for ten listless weeks. I had to force myself to sit through the gloomy affair, more  reason to cherish Altarena’s gift. The fidelity of its staging must mark  a high point in Bay Area musical theater history.

Little theater can be very big.


Monday, April 29, 2024

My New Book --- Keep That Day Job! How to Enjoy Chasing Showbiz Without Going Mad -- Due Out the Fourth of July

There it is, now on its way.  Stay tuned for another mind-boggling quiz!    

I'm now going over the proofs from my publisher, Bear Manor Media, digging into the cracks between words for little bugs -- a comma missing, a period in the wrong place. Jumbled sentences. And that word I'm still not sure about. Checking out photo placements. there are 74 images in all, representing a fraction of the multitude of jobs covered. Total 50.

My last chance to revise. Now or never!

Friday, April 19, 2024

Name the Ringling Spec that celebrated nature? Have We a Winner?

 Yes, we have ...

Jim Royal!

French artist and costume designer Marcel Vertes was commissioned by John Ringling North to create the costumes for the 1956 spec, Say It With Flowers. Life Magazine did a large multi-page spread of the Vertes drawings.  They would be the last originals worn by a Ringling cast under the big top.

Less lavish than what audiences had grown accustomed to when Broadway designer Miles White created the costumes, some fans grumbled.. But to others, they marked a refreshing contrast.  Restful pastels.  Working against them were a  straggling set of floats noticeably frugal, and altogether, the overall impression left room for carping. I, for one, called it Say it With Cement, referencing one of the most embarrassingly frugal floats ever seen in any parade.  The show was going into New York on borrowed money, and Teamster union members were waiting to picket it

In the program magazine,  Vertes contributed a piece, "I Like the Circus," in which he compared working on sawdust to stage:  "I like circus people, too, because they seem to be more friendly than the people in the theatre.   They have a profound respect for the performers who do the really dangerous stunts way up there in space."

It was such a very different show in many ways -- new ringmaster, Preston Lambert, new bandleader, Izzy Cervone, who came with strings added, a score favoring the popular songs of Frank Loesser.  I've seen enticing video clips of the show, thanks to Kenny Dodd, and am taken by the costumes and original scoring for "Ringling Rock N' Roll."  It's a gas.  I would love to have seen the whole show..

 It was a full season not to be.  Come Pittsburgh, PA, and the Greatest Show on Earth gave its last performance under canvas. Thank God -- how lucky was I to have seen it the year before -- my one and only time under the greatest big tops of them all, and one of the greatest days of my life. 

Congrats, Jim!  



Thursday, April 18, 2024

A Tentless Cave to Sagging Fortunes? Catching Up, or Down, with Cirque du Soleil ...

First draft impressions.

You may have read they are closing the Beatles show, Love, in Las Vegas.  The space needed for some massive makeover (a stadium for Oakland A's baseball?) being planned, the stated reason.  Okay, maybe. Or maybe the Cirque brand is fading?  Novelty in time becomes old-school.  And all the pretentious theatrical airs and posturing surrounding it, even more difficult to take. Get on with the show! I don't know.   I lost the urge a number of years ago, fed up with the fru-fru,  pissed off by having to fork over a few dollars for an empty designer bottle,  needed to contain water out of a faucet. In its better days, there were free faucets outside the tent.  People notice these small things.

Desperation isn't pretty.

Which got me wondering, how is the Montreal Monster, which the Canadian government, its initial angel investor in the beginning,  bailed out in 2022, really doing? I have no idea.  I can only guess they are getting by.   They tried playing the indoor venue circuit years ago, which left patrons wanting. They are now crawling back to those concrete charmers. The mark of a thriving concern? 

Yelp reviews:  Once upon a time, there were many raves.  Now, there are many boos. I focused in on the S.F. Bay Area scene the last year, and found some horribly put-off notices.   I tried to copy a few to bring to your attention, but could not.  Suffice it to say, of around only five to eight in recent months, all but one are in negative territory.  Far closer to zero than to five.  Crique-du-fatigue?

All such epic achievements I suppose are bound to wither away in time. That need not be the case here, but in their apparent grope to continue dominating the market, at least in imagery, they may be diluting their product down to the leftover shelves.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Present Tense Tenuous: When Ringling Played the Garden. ... When Garden Beat Ringling on Yelp ... When Hybrid Circuses Feature Trans Dogs ... Hold Onto Your Aerial-Plane Seat!

      When the elephants paraded to Madison Square Garden in the 1950s

      SPRING IS HERE, so they say, and  I shiver as never before, wondering where  “global warming”ever went. I ask a smug wokish friend who impatiently replies, “No, it’s now climate change” But hasn’t the climate always been changing? Was there not once an Ice Age, not caused, I assume, by gas pumps on the moon?

     IN MY ADVANCED kiddiehood when the climate evidently never changed,  nothing could  match the excitement of reading about the spring arrival of  Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at  Madison Square Garden. I thrillingly read in The Billboard of the  latest new wonders,  new production numbers, costumes.  John Ringling North loaded the rings with “First Time in America” imports. Grandma in Brooklyn sent me news clippings.  

Marlene Dietrich, John Ringling North, and Gloria Vanderbilt at a gala Garden opening in the 1950s'

     THEY CALLED IT The Big One, Big Bertha, The Big Show.  And some seasons they packed all 14,000 seats in the Garden on the best of days during a six-week run.                           

      FAST FORWARD to the grey sinking present: The new Ringing acrobatic show played three days across the Brooklyn Bridge at the new Barclays’ Center.  Count ‘em, THREE. And of the twenty New York critics who reviewed Water for the Elephants on Broadway, not a one of them reviewed Ringing.  Why? Has anybody out there an answer?  Has anybody out there a pulse?

     DEFERRING TO DUBIOUS showmanship,  I might Lyft it up to Vallejo (CA) when Garden Bros Nuclear Circus works the town (and would I go nuclear, too?).  Last time I can recall getting suckered into a Garden concession pit, it was Sterling and Reid at the Cow Palace. I walked out at intermission.  Canada may have given us Cirque.  It also gave us Dick Garden, whose  tent, dazzling to behold in photos, is now drawing slightly better Yelp reviews than Ringling.  No, I don’t make these things up.  What I see in video teases are streams of fairly basic though solid-appearing acts.

     AROUND MOST AMERICAN rings these timid times,  it is no longer quite the ever-changing, never-changing circus as once defined by my favorite circus writer, Earl Chapin May.  Less varied.  Less risk-taking.  Less real. AI (hate those letters) knows no limits out here in the State of Insanity.  Down in LA, they’re giving the OK to driver-less cars (as opposed to cars driven by drivers who can’t drive) I feel sorry for the Lyft drivers who share with me their fear of being replaced by chips at the wheel, and  I can hear the hurt in their voices. Are the ultimate outcomes of this obsession what we really want?  Allow me for deferring to the smartest thing I have heard from the mouth of a world leader in decades:

     “IF IT’S POSSIBLE TO USE HUMAN LABOR, do not use machines and mobilize local residents to do the jobs” — Chinese premiere Xi Jinping.

          ONTO THE FLASHING platforms of New Ringling.  Kenneth Feld might take a crack at becoming The Greatest AI produced Show on Earth.  He’s got that fake dog, and I’m wondering if he’ll  re-sign it for next season (assuming there is to be one), maybe give the mut a trans partner?  Media adoration guaranteed.  BTW; How do you “celebrate”  someone’s’ sex change unless they wear a badge revealing it?  How about, then, a retro-hertero coming out day?  Hopelessly Straight Heathens on Parade?  
     LESS AUTHENTIC EVERYWHERE.   I look for a certain safety wire attached to a certain Cirque du Soleil aerialist currently appearing in a TV ad. And then receive a relevant e-mail from Sir Douglas of McPherson, over yonder Pond,  recounting his recent interview with a Cirque performer. She told him, “In training we wear a harness. In the show, the harness is off and you just go for it!”

     HO HO, NO NO.

     ROBOT RINGMASTERS?  Robot Critics? (please, no cracks). Circuses may be going hybrid on us – part human, part other.  For kinky laughs, our new faceless clowns could spoof wild mishaps in the technologically challenged air these days --  mad airplanes fraught with runaway parts, leaving passengers stuck to the ceiling, others gasping for air, while a recorded voice says, “You may claim your soul upon check out.”

     HOW LIKE A SCENE in a nightmare sci-fi flick pitting the emerging power of AI against a human society no longer able to control it. AI scripted.   AI scored  And before that world blows itself up, let me list the star ratings for three circuses, as recently reviewed by Yelp consumers, assumed to be real.
    Zoppe Family Circus
             4-1/2 stars
 Garden Bros. Nuclear Circus.
           2 stars

The Greatest Show on Earth
         1-1/2 stars

It may end not with a bang, but a bum review.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Contest Results for Free Copy of My New Book: Keep That Day Job! How to Enjoy Chasing Showbiz Without Going Mad

      Name the circus that used a jazz band to score the show

  The answer


Have we an answer? Yes, we have.  Only one person got it right, although of the others who gave it a shot,  a few came close. One answered, "Sid Kellner's James Bros Circus".  Another guessed simply "Vargas." There is merit to that last answer, for during the mid-1980s, when Circus Vargas was at its peak in performance quality,  Cliff had a  five or six piece band, richly orchestrated, that included a number more jazzy or jazz-driven compositions.  

Sid hired a real jazz band to score his 1972 show, a group of young musicians from the local Alhambra High School in Martinez, CA, the town out of which he operated. (Incidentally, I worked publicity for a few of the Chicago dates.)  This came as a total surprise to me, and by accident.  I was googling to verify that Sid had headed up a B24 bomber fighter crew during WWII, and came upon a Facebook with a photo of the musicians in front of the bus, especially equipped to serve as their sleeper during the tour.  The image is so dark, I have left it up to my publisher to decide whether it should be included in the book. .

So, who got the answer right? Drum roll, please!  Colin Carter

Congratulations, Colin!  Send me your address by e-mail. The book is now in production, and I'm guessing it will be out in summer or early fall.




           There he is, the one and only Sid: top row, second from left.