Tour Review: LEGENDS (Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 7, 2014

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


The self-described “greatest show on Earth” has now reached the greatest city on Lake Michigan. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s very literal Legends ups the circus ante by conjuring up even greater make-believe than animal acts and death-defying trapezes. We’re treated to somewhat cheesy recreations of Pegasus the Flying Horse (a beautiful but very grounded white horse with immovable fake wings), the Unicorn (an equally noble black horse—aren’t they supposed to be white?—with a convincing horn), and the Woolly Mammoth (a very patient elephant dolled up in a fur coat with fake double curved tusks). All in crude fun (there are ceremonial Chinese lions as well), it’s the sort of stuff with which the wonderful faker P.T. Barnum used to bamboozle the public—as with his imaginary “Egress” (I guess the Minotaur wasn’t available).

Johnathan Lee Iverson in Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey's LEGENDS.

But, true to more traditions than vulgar 19th century flim-flammery, this 144th edition, playing the Allstate Arena and the United Center through November before continuing on tour, has more than enough marvels to matter. You don’t really need to play with an audience’s imagination when there are so many actual wonders on display.

Alex Lacey and Masai in Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey's LEGENDS.

For example, astonishment is at a premium with British tamer/trainer Alexander Lacey’s marvelous assemblage of eleven lions, tigers (and a gorgeous leopard seen later). Far from cracking the proverbial whip or screaming orders to the fractious felines, Lacey shows—and receives—surprising tenderness. One lioness all but becomes a pussycat as she nuzzles him, and, reluctant to leave the cage, rolls around on the canvas. Sporting a magnificent mane, the lone lion shows surprising dignity as other big cats from supposedly hostile species spring over and onto him. You could easily take them for one big, happy and very extended family.

The Cossack Riders and Kanat Tchalabaev in Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey's LEGENDS.

Equally exhilarating, the Cossack-like Riders of the Wind balance precariously on speeding thoroughbreds, even circling around a horse in full gallop. The daredevils erect a five-man pyramid on top of a very patient courser, stampeding at 25 miles per hour around a 46-foot wide ring. Dressage and equine drill, Roman and trick riding—it’s all here and, reminiscent of the equestrian spectacle Cavalia, the riders really do seem as swift as the wind.

Pachyderm precision—a Ringling staple for 130 years–is on display at 10,000 pounds per Asian elephant. It’s a surprisingly elegant moving tableau as the females delicately hold each other’s tails or create their own tower of power, balanced one each other’s backs.

Other enchanting animal acts create a Noah’s ark of rescue dogs, adorable donkeys, llamas, two kangaroos, and goofy goats. (During the intermission a promotional piece cites the circus’ active engagement in the conservation and preservation of endangered species as well as the humane treatment of their captive entertainers.)

Torres and the Motorcycle Globe in Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey's LEGENDS.

The all-human acts guarantee thrills, like the never-dull 16-foot Globe of Steel in which a total of eight motorcyclists from the indestructible Torres family of Paraguay zoom around at 60 miles per hour, with only six inches of separation. The fan-dancing Jade Statues, from China, display their delicate diablo juggling skills, while Beijing’s Chinese National Acrobatic Troupe regale us with hoop diving, 20 performers perching en masse on two busy bicycles. They climb poles and hurl themselves into somersaults, back flips, triple flips and forward rolls, making a dazzled audience feel even more earthbound and gravity-impaired than before. When you see Yao Chengkai leap 10 feet in the air through a hoop as high as any in basketball, you are not bored.

Johnathan Lee Iverson + Paulo dos Santos in Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey's LEGENDS.Heart-stopping human feats include the inevitable high-flying trapeze artists (from the U.S., Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico). These Solar Hawks do a double-wide act high above the floor, featuring a reassuring safety net as they hurl themselves into four consecutive triple somersaults. (On opening night two of the women fliers technically “died,” saved by the mesh below.)

The only letdown were the rather unfunny clown acts—though dwarf comic Paulo Dos Santos generates fun as the legend-seeking sidekick to the formidable ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson. (It’s getting so I’m beginning to miss the clown cars that disgorged a stream of zanies.) Not featured were the eight female acrobats in the hair-hanging Medeiros Troupe: Following a recent accident, the circus was recently cited for negligence in safety precautions.

Nonetheless, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s traveling circus remains something to run away to see, if not join. For even diehard fans there are always new delights, like the kangaroos and the literally incendiary Chinese torch festival. It’s all larger than life and, considering the state of things in 2014, better too.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
Allstate Arena
6920 Mannheim Rd. in Rosemont
through November 16, 2014
next stop: United Center, November 19-30, 2014
for tickets and future tour dates, visit Ringling


Spencer March 21, 2015 at 11:51 am

My great aunt was a leopard trainer in the 1945 acts. I was trying to find posters of her. We have 1 that’s in not so wonderful condition and I was wondering if anyone could help me find some in your archives? Her name was Patricia Walsh. Any help would be appreciated

Jean September 24, 2015 at 3:24 pm

Spencer, I would begin at the Circus Hall of Fame in either Sarasota, Florida, or the one in Wisconsin. If they don’t have one they may be able to direct you to someone who might have one. Good luck!

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