The Passing Spectacle Vol. I, No. 5.

 

 

 Are You Ready to Party?

 

As the show’s title Barnum Bash suggests, and as we are reminded rather forcefully during the course of the proceedings, The Greatest Show on Earth’s Gold Unit, is designed to seem like one long party, “the party of the century” in fact.  As such it has all the elements one would expect to encounter in something called a bash: lots of loud music, frenetic dancing, usually to a South American beat, and lots of fun and games.  It all starts with pre-show clown DJ Dean, who is the show’ version of a social director, except for the fact that such a term has more or less faded from existence.  Let’s call him a DeeJay perhaps?

And lest we forget Barnum’s name is also up there in the title, and it gives the show license to feature some acts that would be more at home in one of the showman’s sideshows than the main tent.  Several of his curiosities are paraded by the dancers, but the main attraction of this ilk is strong-man Dmytrio, who appears several times during the course of the proceedings, presenting a variety of displays of strength and endurance.  At one point he juggles 70 pound cast-iron balls and lifts and pumps three of them at once with just his pinky finger.

But the real stars of the show are Anton and Viktor Franke.  Who would have believed it?  Surely not anyone who saw them in the Monte Carlo festival two years ago, or more precisely not anyone who failed to see the comic potential of this usual duo, which would have been just about everyone in Monte Carlo judging from the reception the duo received in that prestigious showcase of circus talent.  Give credit for some keen perception and talent for sniffing out talent to whomever it was from the Ringling organization who saw what everyone else missed

It would be instructive to anyone interested in the art of clowning to compare what the duo did or did not achieve in Monte Carlo with what it does here in the Gold Unit.  I looked up my review of the duo’s festival performance, and discovered that what it all boils down to is establishing context.  Without it comedy is likely to die a slow and painful death.

In the Gold Unit Viktor the elder gentlemen of the duo, spends most of his time in the ring trying to get rid of the younger half of the duo, the pesky Anton; however, but in Monte Carlo Viktor was never able to establish any sort of persona, and so it was never clear why he wanted to get rid of Anton.  Here in Barnum Bash Viktor’s authoritative presence is established from the very outset.  He is in charge and is not about to have his or the show’s dignity soiled by the antics of this nerdy applause-stealing interloper.  The comedy proceeds from there as Viktor is thwarted again and again and made to look increasingly foolish even as Anton quickly becomes the darling of the audience.  They are always cheering him on in his running series of confrontations with the elder, stuffed shirt.

In this context, with a handful of confetti here and another there, Anton, Viktor’s  foil, has the audience on his side from the get-go.

As he did in Monte Carlo, Anton turns out to have some clever tricks up his sleeve, which he displays during his numerous appearances during the course of the performance.  The most amazing is a display of the wonders of centrifugal force, as he balances a glass of water on the interior edge of a hoop spilling nary a drop as he spins the hoop about.  Finally he stages a boxing match. Unlike the classic version staged by Otto Griebling, which was all noise and blows to the face, this one has several clever twists and turns that make it a complete delight from beginning to end.  And I still wish he would do more with his hula hoop, given the promise shown in the little he now does with it.  (I don’t think I’ve ever said that about any hula hoop artist before.)

In an interesting side-note to this discussion, while researching my Monte Carloreview of the Frankes from two years ago, I discovered a series of photos and a description of an act that looks as if it could have been the inspiration for the bubbly aerial ballet that is now in the Blue Unit’s Dragons.  That one had more bubbles and an entire dance ensemble on the floor working simultaneously, providing lots of visual interest.

There is something of an aerial ballet in Barnum Bash as well, and for my money is more effective than the one in Dragons.  Here six girls work on lyras, but their routines follow three different patterns so there is constant visual interest, wherever one looked. This arrives early in the show and has the kind of energy that keeps the opening moments of the performance excitingly paced.  The change of pace is finally provided by a display involving two camels, two horses and two ponies. They are presented by Catherine Carden, who along with her husband Brett, also present a canine revue and three elephants, amounting to all the animal acts in the show.

Each one of their displays covers the entire repertoire we would expect from that particular animal group.  They give full meaning to the expression “they don’t miss a trick.”  If anything I felt the mixed act, which tended to run the same patterns over and over  and the dogs’ endless display of virtuosity went on a bit longer than they needed to and therefore begin to feel rather repetitious.

Another set of performers who appear in several numbers is the Havana Troupe, which, judging from their name, come fromCuba.  This is the latest country the Ringling talent scouts have begun to mine for talent.

This troupe has boundless energy and bounce to the beat of the Latin music that accompanies their appearances with non-stop enthusiasm.  Unfortunately their skill level is not as high as their spirit.

Each of their acts is introduced by wildly enthusiastic tumbling and some gymnastics.   In an abbreviated display on the Russian barre all of the flyers had to be spotted to secure their landings, and their work on the high bar is pretty much limited to giant swings.  But most audiences will find their dancing infectious, especially when they are joined by the three girls who make up the female dancing ensemble. During those interludes that party is at its most frenetic and exhilarating pitch.

No Ringling show would be complete these days without both the Wheel of Steel and the Globe of Steel. The Flying Cruzados, a team of four young men provide an exciting accounting of what is possible in this kind of act and then top it off by adding a new thrill.  Two of the men walk on the outside of the wheel, two-high, one on the shoulders of the other.  This is certainly the most novel addition to this kind of act that I have encountered.

The act is introduced by the inevitable shooting sparks that is a Ringling signature.  The show carries no follow spot operators, and this act is one of the moments in the show when one would have offered better illumination than is currently provided.  But the act’s exceedingly fast pace makes it go by in a dizzying blur, raising the level of excitement to the point that only an intermission will suffice to bring us back to earth.

The Globe of Steel is presented by four members of the Urias family, the novelty here being the girl who works in the center of the globe while hanging onto a strap.

The show also features two other acts that have appeared in other units of the Ringling shows, but are most welcome each time they appear given the style and beautiful precision of their work  Francleib Rodrigues presents a very pleasing act on the aerial loops, ending with a beautiful salto from one trap to another at the other end of his rigging.

Duo Fusion is an act I could watch over and over again.  They have an incredible sense of style and balletic grace.  Their act here is introduced by a tango danced by several members of the company.  They then proceed to bring the moves and style of that passionate dance into their hand balancing act.  Their matchless grace is captured most emphatically when the woman partner plays the supporting role.  No sense of strain or compromise to the tango style is apparent at any time during these interludes. All in all, it is a terrific act, that adds flash and elegance to the party, culminating in an amazing display of strength.

The show has been directed by Rye Mullis.  The writer (an increasingly frequent credit on Ringling shows these days) is Jeremy Desman. The production designer is Rick Papineau, who has given the show a decidedly contemporary look.  The costumes are by Sam Doty is the lighting designer, David Killinger the musical director, and Troy Wunderle clown director.

A photo gallery of images from BArnum Bash is available at  www. richardczina.photostockplus.com  

 

 

Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars Races to the Finish

 

The latest edition of the Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars has got to be the fastest paced circus under canvas. It moves along at lightning speed, not only between acts but within each. One hardly has time to catch his breath and think about what he is watching before it has changed and something new has come forward to catch one’s attention.

The show opens impressively with the nine Siberian and Royal Bengal tigers that includes one white tiger, all of whom have been trained and are presented by Judit and Juergen Nerger. This is my third attempt at catching the fully realized and motorized version of this act, and I was finally rewarded by getting an unadulterated edition in North Brunswick, NJ on May 19. It was worth the wait.

This is one of the most elegant and picture-perfect presentations of trained wild animals to be seen in America today. Precious little time is spent attempting to demonstrate their wild nature. Instead the cats respond to their cues with hardly a moment’s hesitation. This act must have the fewest snarls and lunging swipes at the trainer than any of the current crop of such acts.

The magnificent cats have barely finished their closing trick when our heads are immediately turned in the opposite direction toward Kellan Bermudez and his wife Maribel who are already at work on the Wheel of Destiny, as it is known hereabouts. The ubiquitous Bermudez also shows up at the show’s finale as the human cannonball and in the clown gags. And just so he won’t be bored he is out on the midway before the show and at intermission doing face paintings.

His work on the Wheel is fairly standard and entirely expected, but he literally runs through the repertoire at such a high speed, he adds an extra dollop of excitement to this sure-fire crowd thriller.

For a quick change of pace, Baby Val, the by now adolescent elephant from the Carson and Barnes herd, skips his way through his routine like a kid eager to show off how bright and talented he is. If he were a human kid he might be considered a bit much, but as a pachyderm he is nothing short of charming, leaving his presenter with little to do but get out of his way.

Val works within the space of a traditional ring, which is quickly broken down for the entrance of the Cretu Troupe, who work at the by now well-established lightning fast pace on the teeterboard. Their single saltos to columns three, four and five high, are neatly accomplished. These few tricks are fleshed out with several aerial saltos and twists from the teeterboard to a mat, which is far less impressive. Despite their height and complexity, they are less exciting than the landings on human shoulders, which must be precise and sure.

Once this group has exited we are sent aloft with the hair-hang gymnastics of Wendy, Petya and Julia. All three are listed in the program, but at the performance I saw only two of the girls worked, and the act seemed designed for just that number. In addition to hanging individually, they combine for several tricks that presumably put even more pressure on their scalps. Their closer has one of the girls hanging by her toes off a lyra hooked onto the hair of the other who is now hanging upside down.

Once again the show’s tone changes. Not its pace, mind you, that remains almost constant. The change here is in the type of presentation being offered. In the past the beautiful Lana has been featured in a one finger stand, followed by an impressive hand balancing act. Here she and two assistants present a series of illusions and fast costume changes. Once again the act suffers a bit, as did her hand balancing act, from being somewhat under produced. The illusions are really quite sensational, but a more theatrical presentation, meaning better lighting and music, is needed to capture the tremendous impact it is quite capable of delivering. Otherwise it just leaves us somewhat bewildered.

I must say, however, that as far as quick change artists go, Lana and Co. have the best looking and sexiest costumes I have seen recently. Of course, Lana’s, figure and face don’t hurt at all in this department.

A brief bit of clowning from the rather thin clown alley, helps cover the striking of the props needed for the illusions, and it is quickly followed by the sensational entrance of the Abuhadba Family Poodles, in a pink open roadster. The dogs are rather spectacular themselves, some of which are dyed a blushing pink or gotten up in flashy costumes and plumes. If any act fully captures the pace of this show it is this brigade of nearly frantic canines, who seem nearly beside themselves with eagerness to get to do their thing.

The clowns return for a version of the familiar gorilla parody, including the rifling through a female stooge’s purse for a variety of unmentionables.

By now the nearly exhausted spectator must be in need of an intermission, but that brief respite is delayed by the entrance the Globe of Steel, in which three motorcyclists, one of whom is promoted as the youngest such daredevil, cavort around the inside of the globe.

After a break the show continues with another attempt at providing some laughs with a trio of “Titanic Tube Jumpers” who knock themselves out on and around a bicycle whose wheels are created out of giant airplane inner tubes.

The Cretu troupe makes a second appearance with what is billed as a display on the Russian barre. Only one such trick is included in their brief outing, most of it taken up with some banquine throws and catches.

The highlights of the programs second half are the comedy provided by the tricked up taxi driven by the aforementioned Kellan Bermudez. It falls apart just in time for Bermudez to get out of his clown makeup and into his heroic getup as the human cannonball.

The other treat of the second half is the no nonsense visit by the show’s company of elephants: three adults and the previously noted Val. They work their way through a number of tricks and poses with alacrity and aplomb with hardly a wasted moment or movement.

Eight girls march into the big top, arrayed in spiffy red, white, and blue patriotic outfits for the show’s aerial ballet. This includes four girls working on lyra and two featured performers: Lana again, this time of silks and Lena in what has come to be called the aerial hammock, but by my reckoning is really a fishnet. Very handsome costuming gives the number a special lift.

Kellan Bermudez’s final blast from the giant cannon sends us home sated and impressed with how fast it all seems to have flown by.

 

 

Phineas and Ferb Are Live and Lively

With the addition of the stage show Phineas and Ferb, the Best Live Tour Ever, Feld Entertainment seems to have covered the entire demographic of all possible audiences. The circus is for families, the motorcross shows are mainly for males of all ages, Disney on Ice is for the youngest children still enamored of the Disney characters and Phineas and Ferb has appeal for both sexes and pre-teens, all of whom were equally represented in the audience with which I saw the show at the Izod Center in New Jersey a few weeks ago.

Phineas and Ferb is based upon the television show of the same name. Little of the conflict inherent in the TV show’s running plot line is used here. In fact, the possibility of conflict is eliminated almost at once when the character who normally provides it promises to behave and not cause trouble. So the main plot line revolves around deciding what theme an end of summer musical they are about to produce will have. That gets a little thin after intermission, and it is left to the subplot to keep us involved. That involves the show’s villain Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz and his nemesis, the platypus, Agent P.

Dr Doofenschmirtz has, it seems, invented a machine that can control the emotions and reactions of anyone at whom it is pointed, as for instance, the audience. I thought this would lead to some wildly energetic audience participation, but the Doctor’s plot is foiled before it goes that far.

As it is, Dr.Doofenschmirtz provides the show with the most fun, even though it is a bit campy and aimed at those who have some familiarity with Broadway musicals of the past. That would be, I would think, the adults. The doctor turns out to be something of a closeted musical comedy fan and he hoofs his way through spoofs of West Side Story, Man of La Mancha and best of all, A Chorus Line, that are rife with insider jokes and references to theater talk. Occasionally, too, big words also creep into the dialogue, words like “serendipitous.” These, too, seem aimed at the grownups who have brought the kids to the show.

But the creators surely understand those kids who are their primary audience as well. It brings several of “the least fidgety” ones up to the stage for a bit of audience participation. There were also several minutes devoted to knocking huge beach ball-sized balloons around. The Izod Center, which is essentially an arena, trimmed down to a proscenium stage, was too big to get most of the audience involved in this gambit which always seems to delight all audiences regardless of age.

The staging of the show cleverly combines animation and live action, with the entrances of the various characters providing an especially effectively bridge (literally and figuratively) between the two worlds.

Some of the themes the characters (Phineas Flynn, Ferb Fletcher, Baljeet Rai, Isabella Garcia-Shapiro, Candace Flynn, Buford Van Stomm, and Jeremy Johnson) try out include monster trucks, Bollywood, and a beach party.

The show has been produced by Kenneth Feld and Alana Feld. Fred Tallaksen is credited with both direction and choreography. Bradley Zweig, who has provided the mise en scenes for some of the circuses of late, is also the writer here. Rick Papineau is the production designer; Cynthia Nordstrom is costume designer, and Samuel Doty designed the lighting. Musical director is Mike Avila, and Paige Johnson is the gymnastic coach and acrobatic choreographer. Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy: Marsh are the creators of the original TV series.

 

Dragons Still Packs a Lot of Fire

 

While working on a new feature involving Johnathan Lee Iverson and Paulo Dos Santos for the nest issue, I had occasion to sit through two performances of the Blue Unit’s Dragons show, the second and third performances of a three show day.  The first thing that struck me was the unflagging enthusiasm and energy level the entire cast maintained throughout both performances.  Nobody was walking through it or phoning it in as the saying goes.  Especially hard working were ringmaster Iverson and his side-kick Paulo.

But since the subject of pacing seems to run through several of the reviews in this issue’s Passing Spectacle another note on the subject should be added here.   The pacing here manages to build a level of excitement  that is unrelenting during the first half of the program, but for my originally statements reservations about the aerial ballet.  But the Tchalabaev Cossack riders keep the knot of tension as taut as can be for a very long act, without a single release.  This is probably one of the most exciting circus acts I have seen in some time.  Each new ride produces new gasps of disbelief from the audience, and the leap after a running start to straddle the shoulders of the rider was nothing short of breathtaking.

The other note worthy observation was how several of the acts had continued to develop.  In my interview with Nicole and Alana Feld in the past issue, it was pointed out that Alexander Lacey’s cat act was a work in progress, and now two months later the progress is entirely obvious.  There are no more conversations with recalcitrant cats who now respond quickly to their cues and the finale has the male lion sitting atop a mirror globe quite confidently.  It is an even more beautiful and thrilling act than when I saw it in March.

The woman in the flying act, the Caceres completed her triple on the first try, and the two troupes of teeterboard and Russian barre artists were equally accurate and secure.

This is a show that held me, even after repeated viewings, with ever changing level of excitement all topped off by the appearance of that flame breathing dragon.