Encore Michigan

The ‘Circus’ Circa 1903 is back in the D.

Review March 17, 2017 Jenn McKee

DETROIT, MICH. – When Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus announced its closing in January, after entertaining audiences for nearly one and a half centuries, the news barely registered a shrug from me. Between reports of animal cruelty, and a general sense that this kind of diversion seemed musty and outdated now, the timing of Ringling’s end felt wildly unsurprising.

Yet, because we’ve paid so much attention in recent years to what’s wrong with traditional circus entertainments, we’ve all but forgotten the sense of wonder these traveling shows once inspired, by way of performers doing things we can’t quite believe they can do. Circus 1903, now making a tour stop at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre, transports you not only to that pre-special-effects era – when trained circus artists used little more than their bodies to amaze and astonish crowds – but to a frame of mind that, with its openness to laughter and awe, feels a lot like childhood.

The two hours-plus show begins when Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson), with the house lights still up, takes a popcorn vendor strut down the aisle, tossing kernels (and a few witticisms) playfully into the crowd. He chooses a young volunteer to come up on stage, and after a couple of magic tricks and some hilarious banter – Williamson is a polished improviser, and he has charm to burn – he leads us from this amuse-bouche to a thrilling, jaw-dropping, meaty course: the three male members of The Flying Fins, who take turns rocketing each other high into the air via a large teeterboard, followed by Russian “Rola Bola” act The Sensational Sozonov (Mikhail Sozonov), who stacks cylinders at a great height and finds a way to mount and balance himself upon them.

Indeed, “Circus 1903” draws accomplished artists from so many different parts of the world that you inevitably wonder how much time this talented troupe spent at customs. The lineup includes: pair of acrobatic clowns hail from Ukraine; foot juggling – wherein one person tumbles the other with his feet – brothers from Spain; a high-wire family act from Mexico; a Canadian “aerial cradle” acrobat (and a harnessed Russian man who acts as her human, stationery trapeze); a German artistic cyclist; a female contortionist from Africa; and a French juggler.

Plus, the award-winning puppeteers that brought to life the title character of Britain’s production of “War Horse” animate, in “Circus 1903,” a full-sized elephant, as well as a baby elephant named Peanut. And while you can see the puppeteers, and gaps between the pachyderm’s different segments, my youngest daughter nonetheless leaned toward me and whispered, “Is the elephant real?”

Both of my daughters – ages 8 and 5 – responded to “Circus 1903” with more smiles, laughs, and “wow”s than any performance that I’ve previously taken them to. The show is fast-moving enough that they stayed engaged throughout the show, and they were utterly delighted by its humor and sense of adventure. “What are they going to do next?” my 5 year old asked; and I realized I had been thinking the same thing.
This is why plenty of child-free adults were having a fantastic time at the opening night performance. Circus acts like those featured in “Circus 1903” still hit us all where we live. It’s spectacle that outright invites us to stare, instead of shaming our curiosity.

But the secret sauce that really makes this show a thrilling joy for all to behold is its design and structure. Rather than simply trotting out act after act, the show’s creators – creative producer Simon Painter, co-creative producer and director Neil Dorward, and executive producers Tim Lawson and Andrew Spencer (that team that also produced “The Illusionists”) – stylishly tie them together by shaping the first act as an extended glimpse behind the scenes, as the circus comes to town, and presenting the second act (following a 20 minute intermission) as the fully costumed, technicolor performance.

The hands guiding “Circus 1903” have a pitch-perfect sense of pacing and energy, and the transitions are not only tonally in keeping with the atmosphere, but fanciful. For instance, as the Flying Fins get ready for their act, ensemble members pantomime driving in the spikes for the circus tent; and before the cycling artist appears, ensemble members construct, with parasols and other sundry items, an imaginary bicycle for the Ringmaster.

Paul Smith’s lighting design amps up the period circus’ theatrical flair; Angela Aaron’s movement-friendly costumes capture the feel of the early 20th century, and call attention to the shift to brighter tones and increased glitz in act two; Todd Edward Ivins’ scenic design allows for brisk, straightforward transitions; Kate McLeod’s hair and makeup complete the period illusion; and composer Evan Jolly’s contributions make moments like Lucky Moon’s aerial ballet even more achingly beautiful.

Significantly, Lucky Moon’s number is preceded by a short speech from the Ringmaster, where he talks about how he’s most moved by the circus performers themselves. They train their whole lives, he says, and while they may only perform in the spotlight for a couple of minutes at a time, they give us something we’ll never forget.

He’s right. And “Circus 1903” more than fits the bill.

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Week of 2/18/2019

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