[Broadway Ad Network]

[Broadway Ad Network]

  • The 134th all new edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, at Madison Square Garden through Easter Sunday, April 11, is not your mother's circus. Oh, sure, The Greatest Show On Earth, the big daddy of them all, is still a family tradition. It's just that the families are a lot different now and so today's circus is anything but routine. There's beauty, brawn, beasts and more than a bit of zany insanity.

    "Tempting fate daily isn't merely a tag line," says RBBB producer Kenneth Feld, "it's a mandate. Each performer -- they're from every corner of the globe -- goes one step beyond in putting themselves on the line. The tried-and-true circus magic is present but, right before your eyes, we sweep you to places you'e never before imagined. You might define it as an extreme makeover! We've taken the 'circus' and turned it on its head."

    "All new edition!" ... "All new edition!" ... "All new edition!" the circus is always shouting, but there's never really anything all new. This is especially true if you attend year in and year out. However, this edition can boast some innovative firsts and twists on the tried and true. It's no secret that circus hyperbole is never short on overexaggertion, but you actually can take Mr. Feld literally about turning things on their head this season. In the Act One "It's An Upside Down World" finale, a duo actually walk on their "ceiling"!

    In the last six years, Ringling had a very distinctive Broadway look thanks to director/ choreographer Philip Wm. McKinley, who gave up the circus to helm The Boy from Oz, and veteran Broadway choreographer/director Tony Stevens [formerly one of Chita's boys and assistant to Bob Fosse on 1975's Chicago]. The costumes became more elegant than glitzy and the showgirls actually did danced to some sophisticated as opposed to kick step, one-two-three, kick step.

    In the "All new!" category, German-born Sylvia Hase [who lives in Los Angeles with husband, film composer Rich Greenberg] is now director, the first female in RBBB history. She says, "I have enormous respect for anyone who has the courage to be a circus perfomer. It's quite an interesting and complex life. Here they are living day to day with their families either in the act or only a stone's throw away and, come showtime, they're out in the arena tempting fate. So while I have a deep respect for the 'big picture,' it was the individual performer I wanted to focus on."

    [Bart Doerfler, a dancer in L.A.'s Reprise! productions of The Boys from Syracuse and Mack and Mabel, is choreographer. There are a couple more theatrical connections, particularly the costume design of Tony Award-winning Ann Hould-Ward (Beauty and the Beast; the '87 and '97 Into the Woods; and, among many others, Dream). The writer is award-winning Alabama native Keith Glover whose plays and musicals have been produced Off Broadway and regionally.]

    Hase directed German productions of Cabaret and the opera Tales of Hoffman, but her background is rooted in theme park shows, ice extraganzas and industrials; but she comes from a dance background, having trained at the Stuttgart Ballet. "That has helped me immensely," she notes, "because I'm used to thinking with my body, seeing formations, imagining how performers go from point A to point B to point C and arriving there on cue."

    Yes, the circus is different from everything she's done, "but," she explains, "it's still a show, and everyone involved has that same passion to entertain the audience."

    She envisions Ringling Bros. "as a circus of extremes, a show without boundaries. That's reflected in every aspect of the production, from the dramatic transitions of the thrill aspects to the show's musical score [which ranges from country to hip-hop and hard rock to gospel]. Each act is an original with its own energy. Rather than trying to fuse them, I kept their unique character in tact."

    Along with, it should be pointed out, the eye-popping, colorful costumes and spectacle.

    Two incredible circus daredevil legends return to headline. Sylvia Zerbini, a stunning blonde and the most elegant artist RBBB has presented is no stranger to circuses since her family goes back nine generations. She alone is worth the price of admission as she floats, astonishingly and seemingly effortlessly, 40 feet above the arena on her trapeze (without a net or safety wire). When she descends to the tarmac, she alluringly becomes a "horse whisperer," presenting a breathtaking equine ballet with Arabian and Andalusian horses. This is the closest thing to a real theatrical staging the circus has ever seen -- well, let's say that Ringling Bros. has seen.

    Then, there's the man who put the D in daredevil, Crazy Wilson [Dominguez], a fourth-generation Venezuelan circus performer, whose philosophy is "You need to make something nobody ever made before. You just create it and do it!" So he's doing it on a quarter-inch high wire where he jumps on a trampoline to sail over his two partners; and doing some truly heart-stopping moments running and leaping atop the gyroscopic "Pendulum of Pandemonium," otherwise known as the "Wheel of Wonder." In another bit of inspired insanity, Wilson joins his brothers in some heart-stopping, gravity defying motorcycle mania in the "Globe of Death." They also somehow entice Wilson's wife Margarita into the center of the steel sphere and criss-cross all around her. Call her Crazy Mrs. Wilson! You do hope they all wear ear-plugs.

    It's hard to take your eyes off this act, which has been presented bi-annually in RBBB for several years, but there are a couple of twists this time. How these cyclists do what they do without mid-air collisions is beyond belief. Opening night, they lived up to the season's tempting fate theme. There was quite a pile up inside the globe. If the accident happened even seconds later than it did, it would have been a disaster. As it was, it was pretty bad. But, after taking a few minutes to swab away at a gasoline spill, they got back into the groove.

    If you want to be a witty wordsmith, you could say Jason Peters provides the "mane event," commanding Chico, Sasha, Tarzan, Kenya and the rest of the largest pride of circus lions in the world. This marks the first time in over 20 years RBBB has had Kings of the Jungle [the best part was watching the set-up and Peters going from cage to cage and hand feeding his hirsute all-male stars].

    Buffeted against these daredevils are some 98 other performers: pole swayers, high-flying trapeze artists, and the dazzling, youthful China Acrobatic Troupe.

    Then there's Troy Metzer's three rings of elephants [he was eight when he laid eyes on his first baby elephant, and was totally smitten -- now, he not only displays them as part of the act, but works with Ringling's elephant breeding program]. Though Metzler joined RBBB in 1988, after several years as a cosmetologist!, his transformation from hair stylist to animal presenter is one of Ringling more unusual stories.

    Back home in Akron, Metzler's mom would invite performers from a traveling circus to visit her hair salon. In exchange, she asked them to let her son visit the animals. "As soon as I hit the fairway, I fell in love with the circus and the animals," Metzler recalls. "The taste of it, the smell of it, the atmosphere."

    His mother struck a friendship with Lou-Ann Jacobs, daughter of legendary master Ringling clown Lou Jacobs [1925 to 1985] and when the Ringling came to town, the Jacobs would stay at the Metzler's. "We'd go to the show every day and Mom would do some of the performers' hair and even some of the animals," laughs Metzler. "I even got to watch close-up from the sidelines as Gunther Gebel-Williams performed. Every time the show left town I'd feel sick, like a part of me was leaving."

    When Meltzer turned 16, he received his cosmetology license and left Akron for New Orleans' French Quarter. But all that changed when a circus rolled in and some friends asked him to help care for the animals. "I never went back!"

    Before joining RBBB, Metzler spent six years as assistant manager of Cambridge, Ontario's African Lion Safari's elephant department

    There is only one huge embarrassment in this year's show: the barnyard animal act at the top of the show. Given that even trained cows, hogs and goats don't have the capabilities of doing much, why put them in an extravaganza like RBBB? This act would work best in a petting zoo situation, certainly not center ring.

    There's another female first in this edition of RBBB: Danette Sheppard, a soul diva with quite a belt is the show vocalist -- billed as the "Siren of the Circus." She has quite a moment in a very strange Kiss of the Bat Woman production number. There's sex appeal for the gals in the form of handsome tenor ringmaster Kevin Venardos, who was named one of People 's "Hottest Bachelors of 2003." No, no, no, certainly no insult intended, but seeing his lanky self in the ring, I couldn't help but wonder about that competition. I mean, he's attractive, but...

    Unfortunately, the music blares more often than not and, given the horrendous accoustics of the MSqG, it's all mumbo-jumbo. Occasionally, you might glimmer a lyric or two from the singers.

    In the "old reliable" department, international award-winning "Prince of Laughter" David Larible is back. He's always good for a funny line, such as this one: "I'm a sort of death-defying daredevil, too, because you can die doing comedy if you're not funny!" And sometimes, in the vastness of an arena such as Madison Square Garden, his routines, which are perfect for an intimate, one-ring show, have died. But this season, though he's on much too long, there are some delightful and a couple of very funny bits in his physical comedy, interactive musical moments with audience members and a brand new comedy magic act.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    Why are you looking all the way down here?
    For more articles by Ellis Nassour, click the links below!



    Or go to the Archives

[Broadway Ad Network]

[Broadway Ad Network]