Theater Review: CIRCUS 1903 — THE GOLDEN AGE OF CIRCUS (National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on February 17, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


As if to compensate for the unpopularity of animal acts, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus began to beef up their productions in recent years, but that lack of intimacy kept the show from being as thrilling as it used to be. (And can we talk about the clowns? The more acrobatic they became, the less funny they were.) Bowing to pressure, last year saw the elimination of elephants from Ringling’s, but frankly the animal acts were the best part of the circus. So, after 146 years, current owner Feld Entertainment, citing declining attendance and high operating costs, announced that this grand American tradition will close up shop as of May 2017.

It’s simply coincidental but rather fortuitous timing for MagicSpace Entertainment, the juggernaut company that produces shows such as RAIN—A Tribute to the Beatles and The Illusionists (the immensely successful magic show currently on tour), for they are presenting the national tour of CIRCUS 1903, Simon Painter and Tim Lawson’s turn-of-the-century-style proscenium circus extravaganza.

Subtitled The Golden Age of Circus!, this very enchanting, engaging, entertaining enterprise has wisely abandoned the so-called storylines of Cirque du Soleil; instead we have the dazzling and stylish flavor of old-time circuses wherein a series of acts—alternately startling, fascinating, comic, and suspenseful—is introduced by a Ringmaster. As with Soleil, there is strong emotional music (the exceptional score by Evan Jolly is prerecorded); the performers move some set pieces and execute simple but infectious choreography; and there’s neither a ring nor live animals. I say “live” because the creators came up with an audacious idea, which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does: puppet elephants.

London-based Significant Object (namely Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller, who were responsible for the amazing puppet equine in War Horse), have brought us Queenie, the gigantic mother African pachyderm, and Peanut, the baby. The temperate quadrupeds are astoundingly lifelike as their lumbering is manipulated and maneuvered by Henry Maynard, Nyron Levy, Daniel Fanning, Luke Chadwick-Jones, Chris Milford, and Jessica Spalis. It’s astounding how emotions are swirled up watching burlap swathed around a metal frame; it perfectly simulates the movement of an elephant’s hide; the twisting, coiling trunk even shoots water at one point. Finally, we can wonder at these marvelous animals without worrying about PETA and the SPCA yelling at us after the show.

Todd Edward Ivins’ scenic design has us outside the big top in Act I, and inside the tent among the rigging apparatus and flagpoles in Act II (which doesn’t always make sense: the bewitching and elegant Elena Gatilova, aka Lucky Moon, does a beautiful aerial ballet in a hovering hoop, but how could that happen outside?).

There were ten acts altogether (and I imagine they can change from time to time on the tour), but I’m not gonna spoil this for you by giving it all away. My favorites include: A silly side show that ultimately introduced The Elastic Dislocationist (a contortionist named Senayet Assefa Amara, actually), whose shapeshifting body will make you wonder if she was born with a rubber skeleton and no joints; the aptly named Sensational Sozonov, the winner of my take-your-breath-away award as he balanced on layers of metal cylinders and teeter boards called rola-bolas; and The Great Gaston (Francois Borie), who juggled faster than the flickering lights of a 1903 silent movie.

The family-appropriate show is made even friendlier by the ridiculously captivating David Williamson, the magician and entertainer who plays our Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade. The middle-aged, mustachioed, merry-andrew was not only folksy and sincere, but downright riotous when he improvised with a “magic raccoon”, card tricks, and five volunteer kids (age 5-9) who he brought up on stage; it’s heartwarming to know that with all the technical wizardry in entertainment, one of my favorite moments in the theater involved a riffing magician and his volunteer tots—and it was far funnier than any clown act I remember.

The entire cast is familial, a jackpot of dexterity and amusement. If you think you’ve had enough of modern-day acrobatic entertainments, I guarantee you’ll still be glad you ran away to this circus.

photos by Mark Turner

CIRCUS 1903 –The Golden Age of Circus
national tour
reviewed at the Hollywood Pantages
ends on February 19, 2017
tour continues through July 2017
for cities and dates, visit CIRCUS 1903

{ 1 comment }

Lawrence Bommer March 22, 2017 at 8:00 am

As a Stage and Cinema correspondent in Chicago, I can only offer a sympathetic added opinion: I enthusiastically second the emotion! CIRCUS 1903 just opened for a too-brief run at the Oriental Theatre. The production is much as Mr. Frankel described it in Los Angeles and that’s attraction enough.

It’s nothing if not professionally awesome, like the tightrope Lopez family imitating the Wallendas (but a tad lower) or the Great Gaston’s six-object juggling. The gentle raillery of the prestidigitating whip/ringmaster’s with selected kids was enchantment enough, most poignant when he gave a precocious little girl a replica of the wonderful bay elephant puppet. (These “animals” are the most authentic I’ve seen since War Horse.) When he told her “life is a circus,” I’m sure he meant it–and she took it–in the best way possible.

The two-hour treat is remarkably authentic to its era, the golden age of circus. 1903 was the year in which the Ringling Brothers designated their extravaganza “The Greatest Show on Earth.” In 2017, thanks to this generous celebration of all kinds of skills, you can see why.

As they used to say at the end of every Ringling spectacle, “May all your days be circus days!”

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