Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Circus Comes To Town

[On Friday night we went to the circus. Jack offered to review the performance for us and I thank him for doing such a thorough job of it. The following are Jack's comments.]


Disclaimer: I have been associated with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, on and off, for around (gasp!) forty years. I am not on their payroll but have done various writing jobs for them, the most recent in 2006. Still, believe me, these comments are not designed for the Ringling press kit but are just my honest opinions.

Circus logoFriday night, we drove down to the Pensacola Civic Center to see Ringling's 137th Edition (the Red show), entitled "Bellobration" in honor of its star, the brilliant daredevil clown Bello Nock. We arrived about an hour before show time to observe the "All-Access Pre-Show" which invites audience members to the arena floor to "interact" with performers and animals. The audience enjoyed it but the pre-show lacked the cohesiveness and spirit that's stimulated by an inspired host -- I am thinking particularly of how brilliantly Jon Weiss conducted this event for several years on Ringling's Gold Unit.

As the circus proper unfolded, I had a hunch it would be an excellent experience. That mood was in the air. I wasn't disappointed. The previous edition, "Circus of Dreams," was quite a mess. Looking back, I consider it now as the transitional show. For that one, the producers Kenneth Feld and Nicole Feld did away with the time-honored three-ring format by opening up the arena floor, adding a giant TV screen and incorporating a storyline into the circus.

I left last year feeling quite a bit let down. Sure, I am all for modernization and innovation. It's lethal to stay stuck in the past. But the "Circus of Dreams" just didn't cut it. Happily it appears that many lessons were learned from that experiment.

Bello Nock"Bellobration" gets it right. From the elegant black and white opening to the blasting human cannonballs finale, it's real circus all the way. As the title would suggest, the show is framed around Bello Nock. He appears throughout, displaying skill and daring on a sway pole and the giant revolving "wheel of steel." He also presides over a funny interactive bit with kids from the audience. (Real "townie kids" or "ringers?" I can't say for sure) and appears repeatedly on pre-recorded clips on the giant screen. Bello is a consummate performer at the top of his form; a seventh generation circus star who's a joy to see in action.

Aside from Bello, I was not impressed much by the show's clowns. They seemed disjointed and generally not very funny. One semi-amusing gag called "Dancing With The Clowns" is about all I remember.

Greatly enjoyed the tiger presentation by the Chilean trainer, Taba. He puts his Bengal and white tigers through their paces with skill and humor. More than once I was reminded of the style and persona of the immortal Gunther Gebel-Williams. And, that is praise indeed.

For an old circus hand like me, another fascinating part of this year's "cat act" is the steel arena which descends from the arena ceiling. It's a major logistical innovation that is brilliantly realized. (Getting the cage up and down in the midst of a show has always been a noisy, labor-intensive nightmare. But, for Ringling, not anymore.)

The Aguillar Brothers do an excellent, polished turn on the high-wire. Ringmaster Ty McFarlan performs well and sings the original score nicely.

There are liberty horses, dogs, flying trapeze artists, Chinese acrobats and many other things included that spell circus. A (mostly) live band adds to the overall excitement. It is a well rounded package and the audience seemed to love every minute.

Close-ups on the giant screen, provided by a roving group of camera-people, are a notable addition. The concept is realized more fully this year than in its debut season in "Circus of Dreams."

For the past few years, one of the stars of Ringling who doesn't get his name above the title is lighting designer Peter Morse. The Felds have invested many millions of dollars in lighting instruments and controls. Using this equipment to the fullest, Peter employs every lighting trick in the book and then some. The look and effects are often stunning. It amazes me that the show as performed in a small market like Pensacola looks as good as it did on opening night in Madison Square Garden a year and a half ago.

I had a great time at "Bellobration." If it comes your way, you'll miss a delightful treat if you don't join the party.

No comments: