Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Even though Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has ceased operations, that doesn't mean that there's no more circus. Across the U.S. and the world, circuses continue in many forms, including small traveling groups, Cirque du Soleil (and its many imitators), and large traditional tent shows. As showcased in Circus 1903, currently playing at the Schuster Center in Dayton, Ohio, it can also take the form of a theatrical event. This savvy, well-conceived presentation bridges the gap between circus and traditional theater well, and includes many talented performers.
Circus 1903 uses a framework of a turn-of-the-20th-century circus, with act one showing behind the scenes activities such as roustabouts setting up the tent, dressing room preparations, and side show distractions, with the second act presented as the show itself. All the while, acts are performed by artists from around the world.
Solid, challenging, and entertaining routines with teeter board, rola bola, stunt bicycle riding, and comic acrobatics are demonstrated in the first act. Especially impressive before intermission are Senayet Asefa Amare (The Elastic Dislocationist) performing wildly unique contortions, and Elena Gatilova (Lucky Moon) with a graceful hoop aerial act. Just before the break, the audience is introduced to the elephants (mama and baby), wonderfully articulated and manipulated puppets by the people who brought the War Horse animals alive in theaters a few years ago on Broadway and on tour. Kudos to the puppeteers who bring these creations to life under the direction of Mervyn Millar.
In act two featured routines include a risley foot juggling act (where one person tosses another person with their feet), a beautiful duo ball spinning presentation, and a solid (but somewhat uninspired) tightrope act. A wonderful aerial cradle routine, where the male swings, throws, and catches his female partner from a platform high above the stage, is performed by Anny Laplatne and Andrei Kalesnikau as Les Incredibles. The best received act of the show was juggler Francois Borie as The Great Gaston. Mr. Borie's act consisted of speed juggling with three and four clubs, a highly technical five club routine featuring backcrosses and multiplex patterns, and a run of seven clubs.
The entire evening is held together by David Williamson as Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade. Mr. Williamson provides homespun narration, expert comedy (much of it via some hilarious antics with kid volunteers), smile-producing magic, and circus-worthy ringmaster introductions. His contributions are significant and appreciated.
Director Neil Dorward skillfully integrates the circus routines into the throwback narrative and framework. The show doesn't have the non-stop energy of a traditional circus, instead choosing to mix in some slower paced acts which are quite appealing and well suited to a theatrical setting. There are a few times when the show doesn't feel set in 1903 (there's some modern sounding music, and a few jokes by Williamson are 2017 specific), but these are minor quibbles. Overall, the music supplied by composer Evan Jolly is well synched to the performances and provides drama and tension.
The design visuals are all solidly rendered and presented. The costumes by Angela Aaron are attractive and period appropriate, and the sets by Todd Edward Ivins are varied and, at times, eye-popping. Paul Smith's atmospheric lighting is exquisitely designed, often piercing through stage fog for a magnificent visual effect.
Circus 1903 doesn't really qualify as a play or a musicalthere isn't a fully realized story and there's no singing. It is instead a circus set in a theatrical framework. The show is a fine addition to the national touring show options, and is a fun, entertaining, and unique offering. The performers are skilled technically and in the presentation of those skills.
Circus 1903 continues at the Schuster Center in Dayton, Ohio, through June 18, 2017. For tickets and schedule, call 937-228-3630 or visit www.schustercenter.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.circus1903.com.