Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Circus 1903 is an old-fashioned circus adapted for the stage, framed by a rather flimsy plot about a circus coming to town inyou guessed it1903. While more modern-era circuses have dazzled with theatrical makeup, glamorous costumes, and exotic music (think Cirque du Soleil or the Disneyfied presentation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in recent decades), this production goes back to the basics with an intentionally vintage feel. Simpler strategies don't make for fewer pleasures, though; we are chaperoned by a master of ceremonies, Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (a delightfully funny David Williamson), who calls a child up to the stage and asks, "Do you believe in magic?" We are encouraged by extension to suspend our disbelief and go along on this journey with a troupe of acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, and even elephants.
The performers who showcase their acts are top notch. Highlights include Senayet Assefa Amara, who astoundsand at times terrifiesaudiences with her contortions, and Gediminas Pavlovicius's amazing balancing act. The true highlight of the production is the set of intricate elephant puppets brought to life by Tony-winning designers Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller, who worked on the recent Broadway production of War Horse. There is one large elephant, operated by a handful of people, and one baby elephant that is worn more like a costume by a single puppeteer, and the two of them seem to come fully to life. My only disappointment with the elephants is that they aren't given more to do. They also made me wish for more of a menagerie, perhaps including lions, tigers and horses.
Other memorable and enjoyable moments arrive when Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade continues to invite audience members up, finding ways to weave them into the show. The strangest omission is the absence of clowns. Though Ringmaster Willy provides ample humor throughout, the stylized antics of the American clown seemed glaringly missing (perhaps a relief to anyone who may suffer from coulrophobia).
Director Neil Dorward has assembled a high-quality creative team. Costumes by Angela Aaron and lighting by Paul Smith add lovely touches to the production, though nothing is particularly memorable. There is no live orchestra, forcing the performers to time their acts very rigidly to recorded music. There were occasional miscues of music at the performance I saw, which briefly disrupted the flow of the act.
Whether you are a kid or kid at heart, there is something for everyone at Circus 1903. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission, which felt like a comfortable length for the children in the audience. This production is a great opportunity to relive a time when the circus was the most magical show people might ever see and remember when it truly was "The Greatest Show on Earth."
Circus 1903 is presented by SunTrust Broadway, Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham NC through October 1st, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.DPACnc.com, www.ticketmaster.com, or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person or by phone at 919-680-2787. For more information on the tour, visit www.circus1903.com.
Director: Neil Dorward