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by Randy Gener

caricature of Randy Gener
Copyright © 1998, Randy Gener
Caricature by Sam Norkin

Big Apple Circus
The cast in the finale of Big Apple Circus "Happy On!" (Bertrand Guay photo)
NEW YORK, December 1 -- Just when you thought that Cirque du Soleil's high-arty theatricks has finally blown the lid off the traditional circus, we approach the end of the century with the back-to-basics circus back on top. Even Disney takes note of this. In its delightful new full-length animation film, "A Bug's Life," an endangered hill of ants gets saved from the pesky mafioso-like grasshoppers through the help of a ragtag of circus-trained insects who clown around, juggle grapes, do acrobatty stunts and perform magic tricks. Far from killing off the homespun-style circus, these New Age circuses and circus-themed movies have only made us yearn for the real thing.

So if you want to return to the innocent happiness of the circus of yore, Big Apple Circus's new production "Happy On!" is just the ticket to ride. At 21 years old, Big Apple Circus keeps chugging along with its intimate, classic, European-style one-ring circus. Unlike the hoity-toity Cirque du Soleil, Big Apple enchants because it offers the childlike thrills of seeing elephants, horses and hoop-diving dogs upclose and personal. Unlike the three- ring spectacle of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Big Apple pitches an actual, not a figurative, tent where the pleasures are breathtakingly sensual. With every family sitting less than 50 feet from the ring, you can practically taste the fun and excitement.

Still, Big Apple falters when it comes to its concept. In order to offer a different yet familiarly classical flavor, ringmaster and producer Paul Binder and the rest of his design team have, in the past, put forward dull or fluffy themes to pad the show. In addition, this circus critic always turns into a grinch at the sight of Grandma, the Big Apple signature clown played by Barry Lubin. While I am always for clowning with a transvestite twist, Grandma tries too hard for too few laughs. And has anybody told her that she looks like Sophia on "The Golden Girls"? (Now there's a broad with real spunk.)

So it fills me with great joy to report that this year's production jettisons a hyped-up theme that threatens to overwhelm the simple charms of the classical one-ring circus. It also eschews Grandma for a clown with true talent, Bello Nock. This year's offerings may look a little slapdash every so often (Asian acrobats in Mondrian attires, an "Arabian Nights"-style high flying act, and a jazzy tight-wire dance), but none of this seriously upstages the vaudevillian splendor. And since this year's extravaganza promises nothing more than pleasure and enjoyment and happiness, these are exactly what we get.

The first act is spectacularly good and such uproarious fun. The Liaoning Acrobatic Troupe of beautifully muscled Asian boys climbing up poles using only their strong arms and doing aerial bungee stunts were a real "Wow!" (They were cute, too.) Ella Levitskaya goes agog with her hoop-diving canine friends (bassets and dachshunds). We also get a breathtaking display of agile horses and big pachyderms standing on two feet. The only real disappointment was Katja Schumann, the 1998 silver medalist at Paris's World Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow, whose jazzy tight-wire dancing seems a little out of place, not to mention subtle, from the spirited shenanigans.

Emotionally, the second part of the evening falls flat a little. This is mostly because the more serious fare often runs longer than they should and is interspersed between the truly zany displays of skill and talent. Vladimir and Olga Kurziamov are transfixing as they float and unfurl in the air to the cadences of Ravel's "Bolero." Wang Lixin from China heroically juggles cups and spoons while balancing on a unicycle on a ball. But for my money nothing can quite take away from the jaunty-silly craziness of the flock of nine parakeets, called the Amazing Learned Budgies, presented by guest ringmaster Norman Barrett who is a legend in Britain and whose cheery patter and bird puns were quite lively and witty. These cutie-petutie birds slide down the seesaws, climb ladders, and raise a Union Jack as they ride a dizzying pinwheel in a miniature circus-within-a-circus of their own.

Bello Nock on unicycle (photo: Bertrant Guay)
The sneaky funny part, of course, is that amid the enchanting chaos, there actually is a theme that runs through the evening. It's subtle, but it's unmistakably signaled early on when Paul Binder asks a kid to come to the stage and do the welcome greetings. And then Binder gives over his ringmaster duties temporarily to Norman Barrett. A less blowhard emcee has never been more welcome. Barrett, of course, gleefully takes advantage of Binder's absence and continually jests when Binder disappears that now the fun can really begin. It does, with the help of the strapping Bello Nock, who takes over in his way. Nock is a seventh generation circus performer and a completely superb clown. Quite winningly, he bounces around the circus ring strapped only by elastic suspender cords and rides a bicycle that continually loses its parts. When an elephant puts Nock in its mouth and lifts him off the ground, he's clearly an accomplished acrobat and a brave soul, to boot. He also proves to be a younger daffy foil to Barrett's pixieish codger. Together Barrett and Nock show us different approaches to the ringmaster duties, and by making it all seem so fun they inspire us to want to become ringmasters, too. The two also do something even grander. Together they emcee what is surely the best, brightest and most sheerly invigorating Big Apple Circus production in years.

"Big Apple Circus Happy On!" performs in New Jersey at their new site, Colonial Park in Franklin Township for eighteen performances, March 13-28, 1999. Tickets go on sale Monday, February 1, 1999. Tickets range in price from $12.00 - $38.00 and are available through Ticketmaster (212) 307-4100 and at all Ticketmaster outlets. Tickets may also be purchased at the Big Apple Circus Box Office beginning March 13. For discounts for groups of 15 or more, wheelchair accessible seating or additional information, please call 1(800) 922-3772.

Big Apple Circus' 1998-1999 38-week tour of Happy On! Is presented by T. J. Maxx and sponsored by Clairol and Newsweek. T.J. Maxx has increased its participation in the second year of its sponsorship of the Big Apple Circus. The presenter is planning to promote its tie-in with the Big Apple Circus by offering its customers up to $7.00 off each ticket. Offer available at participating New Jersey area stores.

All dates and locations for the following 1998-1999 tour schedule are subject to change.
(1) April 3 to May 9 at Boston, Massachusetts in partnership with Boston Children's Museum (56 performances);
(2) May 14 to May 23 at Brookville, New York at Long Island University, C.W. Post Campus, presented by Tilles Center (14 performances);
(3) May 27 to June 6 at Queens, New York at Cunningham Park (17 perfs.);
(4) June 12 to June 27 at Chicago, Illinois at Arlington, International (21 perfs);
(5) July 5 to July 11 at Charlestown, Rhide Island at Ninigret Park (13 perfs); and
(6) July 14 to July 18 at Hanover, New Hampshire at Fullington Farm presented by Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College (11 perfs).

"Big Apple Circus Happy On" is produced by Paul Binder and co-directed by Guy Caron and Michael Christensen. This all-new production has been influenced by American Vaudeville, British and French Music hall, Revue and Circus genres. The music is composed and arranged by Brigitte Larochelle and Eddy Davis with sound designed by Jim Van Bergen. The costumes are by renowned French designer David Belugou, and the choreography is by Gail Gilbert. The set is designed by Dan Kuchar is accented with spectacular lighting by Sarah Sidman.

For more information about the Big Apple Circus, please visit the circus company's web site at www.bigapplecircus.org. [Gener]

Copyright © 1999 Randy Gener.

Randy Gener is a theater critic for The New York Theatre Wire. A New York-based writer and journalist, he contributes to The Village Voice, The Newark Star Ledger, Stagebill, American Theatre, Dramatists Guild Quarterly and HX Magazine. His e-mail address is RNDYGENER@AOL.COM.

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