Passing Spectacle Vol. V – No. 5

Kelly Miller Deserves Its Title

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Although the Kelly Miller Circus can, on most of the lots it plays, evoke feelings of small town America, it is a first rate show in all respects.  It is certainly superior to the small circuses I saw growing up in New  Jersey in a town that was the embodiment of  small town America.  The shows I saw there were so vastly inferior to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey that I quickly decided I wanted nothing to do with them.  I could see the Greatest Show on Earth a thirty minute bus ride away in New York City or under canvas in Newark, N.J.  I thus became a circus snob at an early age.  Kelly Miller today, insofar as the quality of its acts is concerned, is up to the standards of the big show.  These small town folks who are its most likely patrons are being treated to a series of acts that are first rate, so that the show can deservedly call itself “America’s one ring wonder.”

Speaking of “one ring,” the mud shows of my childhood all purported themselves to be three ring extravaganzas, but whatever was happening in those tiny end rings was not worth anyone’s serious attention. In today’s single ring there are no compensating and distracting factors that either take away or add to what’s happening in the one and only ring.  So the center ring acts had better be good or today’s audiences, far more sophisticated than those of my youth, will recognize quality or its absence when they see it.

Kelly Miller’s current edition, John Ringling North II’s tenth, sparks and keeps our interest throughout despite the loss of its cage act and clowns Steve and Ryan.  It’s not entirely clear to me who is responsible for programming the lineup of acts but whoever it is gets the proceedings off with a bang thanks to  the high wire motorcycle act of Fridman Torales & Co.  The one programming choice I would question would be putting Joel Faulk’s rope spinning act as the finale of a rather charming aerial ballet featuring five couples costumed to carry the western theme so dear to the heart of John North, who  says it is his favorite.  While Faulk’s work is up to the standards of the entire show it does tend to be somewhat anticlimactic in its current spot.  I think it would work better if he introduced the ballet instead, since the web work is so much more visual impact and could end the first half with a splash.

Returning acts feature the sensational aerial work of Kimberly Souren, whose excellent work on the swinging trapeze is surely one of the show’s highlights. She opens rather nonchalantly with a double toe hang, and closes by inching down to her heels on the bar while in full  flight.   Her husband Nicolas Souren is an accomplished juggler, who caught my attention by wearing gloves while juggling rings.  It seems he injured his hand and needed the gloves to reduce the pain involved in catching these fast moving objects.

The Sourens are returnees from last year’s show as is the clown Fajolino, whose version of Bello’s William Tell audience participation gag needs better timing, but with his imaginary orchestra bit he manages to milk all its potential for comedy.

Other returning acts include Carolyn Rice’s “Happy Hoedown,” featuring a menagerie of geese, dogs, a goat, an absurdly costumed llama and a pony. Her husband Mike turns up in a couple of new acts more animated than I have ever seen him.  He first plays the Mule Whisperer William T. Kiddo, whose four- legged side kick gets the better of him in a delightfully droll routine.  Later he shows up with an educated zebra, which is even more amazing as well as amusing.

An attractive couple, Mendee and Zaya present a gracefully thrilling strap act before Maya returns in a display of contortion that concludes with her hitting a bullseye with a bow and arrow, manipulated by her feet, without so much as a fare-thee-well.

Another act making an encore appearance is Anna Louise, the extravagantly caparisoned dancing elephant, presented by Tom Demry. The show is brought to a flamingly spectacular conclusion by the human volcano, Lamount.

John Ringling North II revealed that all the music used in the show came from the public domain saving a great deal of money on royalties. He also told us that he is considering hiring a monkey act for next year’s show, something he is sure will raise the hackles of the animal rights people, whom, he informed us, have made him the object of the most vitriolic hate mail, much of it coming from parts of the country Kelly Miller doesn’t even play.  None of this has diminished his (or his wife’s for that matter) enthusiasm for producing and touring.


Circus Flora Takes Us Out to the Ball Game

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Sitting under the Circus Flora big top waiting for its new production Pastime to begin, one can’t help but look forward to what is to come with considerable pleasure, thanks to the various stimuli that have been put before us  in those moments as the audience gathers.  Oddly enough there is no real pre-show warmup here. Instead there is first of all the terrific décor to consider.  In the space that would be the performer’s entrance, there  is a the baseball scoreboard that looks as if it had been torn down and moved in under the big top from some baseball farm team based in Podunk, Amercia, a town that hasn’t changed since the 1940s.  Next to the scoreboard is the home team dugout.  We are in Balding Stadium,  home of the woebegone Mound City Zephyrs.  In the bandstand, off to the left of the scoreboard, is a musical aggregation  dressed in military style uniforms borrowed from some high school band complete with plumed shakos.

The front page of the show’s program book is meant to look and sound like a recreation of the sports page of a small town newspaper trying to boost its hometown heroes, despite their dismal record. In the colorful argot peculiar to sports writers everywhere, this nicely provides the context for the show’s action, and provides the back story for the plot.

The pre-show sound track is made up of the roar of a crowd watching a nail-biter between their hometown heroes and their hated rivals from the next county.  Once the performance begins, the narrated action is occasionally interrupted by the play by play action beamed from the local radio station delivered up in the colorful language of the town’s beloved sportscaster, the recording of which has presumably  been done by a professional sportscaster. All the acts are dressed in baseball uniforms representing the various low-level farm teams of the big league franchises that play in the same hapless league as the Zephyrs.

If only the show that emerges from all these colorful details were always as engrossing and amusing. But then that’s the way it is with baseball, as the clown Yo-Yo’s narration freely admits.  It is a game that allows for the occasional lengthy stretch of wool-gathering between bursts of astonishing excitement.  Sometimes too the expected heroes disappoint and unexpected thrills are produced by the play of previously unheralded utility players.

The Flying Wallendas unfortunately fall into the former category. In this outing they seem off their game, their brief performance is short on real thrills. On the other hand four members of the Cuban Connection deliver the otherwise missing major thrills, first in a two person Chinese pole act and later in an awe-inspiring bit of heroics on the Russian bar.

And then, of course with baseball it’s always possible to lose your way as the action grinds along. That is a problem Flora always has to deal with given its tradition of vocal narration. Unlike an ordinary member of the audience, I attended five performances of Pastime, during my stay in St. Louis. I sat in five different locations, and I found that the sound system’s efficiency varied by location and atmospheric conditions.  The first time around I found most of the narration all but indecipherable, robbing much of the transitional action of its charm and humor, which I found in abundance in later viewings,  once all those words finally became  understandable.   Unfortunately most of the show’s patrons do not have that advantage, so it’s difficult to say how much of the clever story they are getting.

Another problem I found with the show was that the music rarely conjured up an afternoon at the old ball game and at times only the percussion managed to make its way through the sound system.

But there are other pleasures to be enjoyed at the circus as well as the ballpark. Johnny Peers canine ensemble delivers the kind of low comedy baseball is all too capable of producing.

By the time I saw the show Melvin Diggs had departed. He normally partners with Sidney “Iking” Bateman in what has the potential to be a breathtaking display of  hoop diving, both here at Flora and in the 7 Finger International Production Cuisine and Confessions. That left Bateman the responsibility of carrying the act alone, which, given his dynamic stage presence he is more than capable of doing.  However he could also go in the opposite direction and become, depending upon his performance either the team’s hero or goat.

While it is always a delight to find a bareback act in the lineup, the odd combination of skills employed by the troupe La Tarumba did little to enhance either the strap act it incorporated into its riding or to raise the level of the horsemanship.

Since the last time I saw them. the Flying Cortes seem reinvigorated by the infusion of a trio of young ladies, the return to full health of Robinson and Alex’s powerful triples and fanciful antics in the act’s finale.

A team that always boasts a remarkable batting average, The St. Louis Arches, once again managed to infuse the proceedings with the indispensable energy of youth. As with all youngsters, their irrepressible unpredictable play assures audiences of an endless stream of surprises

And then there is Amanda Crockett, whose character not only saves the season for the Mound City Zephyrs, but also, as the central figure in this tale of  baseball redemption. She plays the consummate fan, but has also had a part in the creation of the piece as (presumably) comic consultant. In her first appearance she performs her signature hat juggling routine, dulled somewhat by the overly long section of physical dislocations. In contrast I found her trap work in the second half of the show out of which she emerges as the narrative’s hero,  unceasingly amusing as she seemingly struggles to keep from embarrassing herself.  In between these comic contortions she has inserted some impressively daring aerial maneuvers, and the way she finds her way out of a heel hang is nothing short of a breathtaking.  It is a unique display of strength masked by humor, something I have never seen anyone else accomplish.

If one is lucky enough to find a good seat on a good night when the sound system is hitting on all cylinders, Pastime has more than enough amusements  to make it seem like time well spent, like a game when the home team can do no wrong and comes out smelling like roses.