The Passing Spectacle Vol. IV , No. 7

By Plane, Train and Ship The Big Apple Circus

Provides a Whirlwind Tour


From the very first notes of the Big Apple Circus’s overture a certain comfort level steadily sinks in, and we can feel in our bones that all will be well on this Grand Tour the company has booked for us.  And so it is, from start to finish, this is a show with an enormous sense of where it wants to go and how to get there with style, humor, unflagging energy and a combination of visual and aural delights that keep us in its thrall throughout.

It begins with Joel Jeske who is not only credited with having created the show’s concept, written its text,  and he also serves during the course of its journey as our tour guide.  In that last position he is abetted by his clowning partner Brent McBeth and in the former by director Mark Lonergan.   That overture, that I spoke of at the outset, has been devised by band director Rob Slowik.  It sets the tone and style of the show, telling us immediately that we are at a circus and the time is the Roaring Twenties. The action will be lively and light hearted, brisk and bright.

John Kennedy Kane, who returns as the ringmaster, is looking more elegant and at home on this outing, although we see a good deal less of him during this trip than we have in past adventures. He turns up only sporadically, but in each appearance he adds a touch of droll humor that is a pleasant contrast to the broad comedy provided by the clowns, and as a result he keeps this show about travel moving delightfully along with nary a bump or effort being expended.  The pleasant surprise of his performance is that in the various roles he assumes there is less caricature and more character.

Since this is a show about the hustle and bustle of travel, the opening charivari is peopled by characters in various ethnic and national costumes.  It sets the pace and fixes the energy level of the entire performance, capturing the excitement of travel to exotic realms, and reminds us of the period’s wild abandon, epitomized by the frenetic Charleston dance.  Jenny Vidbel, a familiar figure in the Big Apple during recent seasons, here looks smashing as a 20’s vamp.  This opening is in all respects a terrific send off for the show,  and Chiara Anastasini manages to maintain that level of energy in her hula hooping despite it being a rather standard act of its kind.

The first leg of our trip is by sea, as we are reminded by the economical but successful porthole gag performed by Jeske and McBeth.   Like all of the clowning it is perfectly timed to get its laughs, and then lets the show get on with it.  The clowning is mainly simple slapstick, but it is so precisely delivered in both senses of that expression, that it seems as pure and refined as a carefully choreographed ballet, providing a pleasure that comes from seeing something so normally slapdash done so well.

That sense of exquisite timing and precise control that we can enjoy in the clowning moves from the ridiculous to the sublime in the performance of the juggling sailor Alexander Koblikov, whose effortless precision and droll humor perfectly match the tone of the show.

I have seen Koblikov several times previously at European festivals, and his casual display of astounding skill that almost seems thrown away has never failed to win him the top awards.  After moving small white balls around his sailor hat, his body and feet, he casually tops it all off by keeping ten of those balls confidently aloft.  He is almost flawless, but he knows how to handle a minor slip and turn it into an unexpected delight.

What grand tour would be complete without an adventure on the Orient Express?  Femme Fatale Jenny Vidbel is aboard with some of her pampered canines, which develops into a charming change of pace.  Her elegant flapper is an amusing contrast to the down to earth antics of her pack of pouches.

A trio of Chinese equilibrists next take us to the Orient.  The novelty here is the apparatus upon which the three young artists practice their handstands.  They work on various levels of a tilted circular platform which adds immeasurably to the visual interest of this nicely choreographed display, one that has everything a circus act should have, visual interest, exceptional skill, and engaging costumes, music and lighting.

In one of the more appealing audience engagements, a youngster from the audience becomes the recipient of a red nose transplant.

The first half is brought to a breathless conclusion by Eric and Jayson Dominguez who try to outrace what they are calling the Wheel of Wonder.  The first act finale, which comes as something of a surprise  since  the first half of the show has breezed by before we know it with a speed  that ironically never calls attention to itself, quickening our pulse while the artists hardly seem to have taken a deep breath.

This thrill act is given an effective boost first by the China red color of the wheel, which gives the presentation an added vitality, and secondly by the much heralded intimacy of the Big Apple big top, since this is a number to which we normally do not get very close.  It is all the more exciting thanks to this up-close view.

Pony rides at intermission, with each pony being led by a member of the troupe, has the kiddies lined up during the entire interval.  This is not the traditional pony sweep, another reminder of a time long gone, when pony rides actually felt like an adventure.  Having never missed a pony ride as a kid on any family outing, I know the level of pleasure this kind of ride can produce.

We begin the second half lost in the desert, with Jeske and McBeth.  They are followed by Jenny Vidbel and Emily McGuire’s unusual and fascinating equestrian display that incorporates dressage and horses at liberty.  Although low-key in impact the presentation maintains the stylishness of the production’s approach from moment to moment, including the clowning, which next dips into a vintage novelty song “Istanbul” for a refreshing change of pace that looks and feels like a musical comedy interlude that even includes a bit of tap dancing from McBeth and the appearance of a comic camel.

Then it’s off to Africa with a troupe of four young acrobats, the Zuma Zuma Troupe, who tumble and build pyramids in a flash without nary a pause in the action.  The act is so fast it is over before we know it, leaving us, rather than the artists, breathless.

Since the 1920’s began to see advances in air travel, the next two acts , keep us buoyantly aloft,  first with Sergey Akimov, whose elegantly executed aerial strap act makes man’s desire to fly entirely understandable.  A wonderfully familiar childhood game, musical chairs, is next elevated into a predictable but rewarding bit of clowning thanks to Jeske’s totally scrutable facial expressions.  There is something of Groucho Marx about his manner, which is pricelessly malevolent and enjoyably predictable.

The Dosov troupe, looking like a team of early aviators, sends the show airborne for a final bit of gasp inducing flight, sending us home as if airborne ourselves.   The troupe is nicely costumed and amusingly choreographed and provides all the requisite thrills, especially when one of their crew is shot aloft tied, first to a pair of stilts and then to a single one.


The Grand Tour , in case I have not made it  entirely clear, is easily the most satisfying and engaging show the Big Apple Circus has fielded in its past few outings.  For that, credit, in addition to Joel Jeske and Mark Lonergan, the contributions of Rob Slowik and the seven member band, Maruti Evans’ scenic designer, Oana Botez’s costumes, and especially Antoinette Dipietropolo, who is both associate director and provided the stylish (there’s that word again) choreography. Bon voyage.


Circo Hermanos Vazquez Continues to Delight


I caught up with the so-called Western Unit of Circo Hermanos Vazquez in an upscale mall in New Jersey that the Cole Bros. show played several years ago, just once.  The Vazquez troupe was  there with the stipulation that the show would include no animals, which apparently even included dogs and horses.  To compensate the circus brought in new thrill act, made of up motorcycle daredevils who jumped from one ramp to another across the space of the entire ring .

The show also included one new act which I had never seen before.  Duo Exxtrem’s double strap act upped the spectacle by being dunked into a tall and rather narrow fish bowl between flights.  For a spectacular finish they included bursts of bubbles, fire and smoke to their impressive work aloft.

I also enjoyed seeing Klaudie Legronova Bremlov, the show’s amazing foot juggler, again, and, of course, the cast included Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs, whose work that rainy, chilly night before a very small audience was about as close to comic perfection  as you will find.  I was impressed anew by the duo’s  carpenter gag whose beautifully realized props, turned the act into a small Laurel and Hardy movie set.  The vacuum gag’s blow off utilized more of the team’s clever props.  Obviously Ryan is the Paul Jung of the present generation.  I know of no other producing clowns, who are as effective, that is to say funny, clever and surprising as this talented pair.

I also enjoyed watching Steve get even with an audience member who decided not to play by the rules in the beach ball bouncing time filler interlude.   He knows how to handle a recalcitrant or uncooperative audience member and make him regret his trying to top the clowns.

Another new element added to the show is a bit of sermonizing a la UniverSoul.  “Kiss your parents and thank them for bringing you,” kids in the audience are admonished.

The audience on the night I attended was small because it was the closing night of a week’s extension of the original run.  As is often the case, the added week was not as well promoted as the first week, but the company played it all full out.