The show is big, bold, bright, loud, utterly excessive and unabashedly corny, and I loved almost every frigging minute of it.
After all, what’s not to like about a show that offers a live band, smoke machines, video projections, pyrotechnics, goats riding on the backs of ponies, porcupines, clowns, Chinese acrobats, scantily-clad showgirls shaking their booties, elephants, tigers, aerialists, tumblers, trick riders on horseback, dogs catching Frisbees, people bouncing up and down on what look like huge inner tubes, etc., etc., etc. I mean, if you ain’t seen it, you won’t believe how much stuff they throw at you.
In case you’re wondering, Dear Reader, no, I’m not a hired flack, even though I must admit (“full disclosure,” as they say on MSNBC) that I took advantage of free press passes to attend Tuesday night’s performance.
I also attended a private media reception in the BJCC Arena Club before the show, where I mingled with showgirls, watched David Neal from Fox 6 put on a clown nose and do a live remote, and — in the great tradition of the American press corps — stuffed my face with as much food as I possibly could.
I had four hot dogs (two of them ladled with chili), two medium-sized containers of popcorn, and two cokes. Oh, and I took a bottled water into the Arena.
However, I must stress – in defense of my journalistic virtue – that I attended a performance of “Bellobration,” the other current Ringling show, at the BJCC in January 2007 on my own dime, and would have done so gladly this year for reasons I will make clear shortly.
Anybody who knows me will tell you that my tastes are not exactly mainstream (my favorite movie of the last decade or so is David Lynch’s Lost Highway, if that gives you an idea), and I generally hate anything that seems to pander to established tastes or values.
But to all of my fellow angel-headed hipsters cruising the angry streets at dawn in search of an angry fix, I would tell you that you avoid the circus at your peril. Aesthetics are one thing, but Ringling takes aesthetics and pounds them to the ground, then offers them David Neal’s clown nose and a bag of cotton candy. The circus is a true American spectacle, sort of like a moon landing mixed with a Super Bowl halftime show, and it comes to town every year. Dude, you can’t go wrong.
As strange as it may seem, I never attended a circus until the fall of 2006, when I saw two smaller shows at Fair Park, the Barnes (yes, “Barnes”) & Bailey Circus, who performed in tents set up on the grounds, and the Stars of the Moscow State Circus, who performed in the basketball arena.
Both of these troupes had some great performers – some probably as good as the ones who tour with Ringling – but when I saw "Bellobration" last January, I realized that they don’t call Ringling the “Greatest Show on Earth” for nothing.
The circus touches every primal emotion.
Clowns make us laugh.
Acrobats and trapeze artists scare the crap out of us, playing with our fear of heights or, more specifically, our fear of falling from great heights.
The showgirls titillate us.
The animal trainers allow us a glimpse of such fierce creatures as Bengal tigers. We know these animals could rip us apart in about 10 seconds flat, but they are kept at a safe distance from us and our kids and our light swords and our cotton candy, inside a cage with steel bars, so we can be excited without having to really be fearful.
The contortionists give us just a taste of the freak shows that were, until the middle of the 20th century, a staple of many traveling carnivals.
The huge production numbers with their lush music and, at times, hundreds of performers on the arena floor, transport us from our present quotidian reality into another dimension. Before movies, TV, and radio, circuses were the only vehicle for this fantasy generation available to millions of Americans, especially in hundreds of smaller towns linked by the railroads on which Ringling still travels, in a mile-long passenger train, the longest in America.
If you haven’t seen the circus is a number of years, you may notice some changes. Ringling has broken out of the traditional three-ring circus form and introduced narrative threads into the shows. In “Bellobration,” the clown and acrobat Bello has a crush on a beautiful female aerialist and pursues her, with little success, throughout the performance.
In “Over the Top,” the classically trained, conventionally handsome Wagner portrays a traditional ringmaster who competes with clown Doughty (a sort of tall, crazed Pee Wee Herman-meets-Jerry Lewis in the body of John Malkovich) for possession of the ringmaster’s hat. He who possesses the hat gets to run the show.
Robin Oliver of Big Communications, Ringling’s publicist in Birmingham, told me that the ringmaster is supposed to represent all the adults in the audience who want things to go as planned and to get on to the next act, and the clown represents the children in the audience who like to see anarchy and crazy things happen. It seems that Ringling is using these characters to embody in one show the competing forces of tradition and innovation that shape it a new century, as it competes with such entertainment options as Cirque de Soleil and “The Lion King.”
By the way, a shout-out to Robin for allowing me to accompany her on Tuesday afternoon when the elephants and horses when taken off the train in a rail yard on Vanderbilt Road and walked to the BJCC. She and I walked for nearly the entire four-mile route in the rain and cold, watching as scores of people came out of their places of business along the route and marveled at this once-a-year spectacle, taking pictures with their cell phones. It was one of those corny, traditional news reporter-type gigs that I would not have missed, and we both managed to avoid catching pneumonia.
Show times for Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus are 7:30 p.m. tonight; 11:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26, and 1 and 5 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 27. Tickets range from $10-$49 and are available through Ticketmaster.