Chicago Theatre Review
Dazzling Splendor Under the Big Top
Circus 1903—The Golden Age of Circus
At the turn of the previous century, entertainment was mostly limited to a person’s own inventiveness and imagination. Teddy Roosevelt was President, the Wright Brothers flew an airplane at Kitty Hawk and baseball’s first World Series took place between Pittsburgh and Boston. But to pass the time, when Americans weren’t hard at work, there was no television. There were games to play and books to read. For those who could afford it, Vaudeville, dance halls flourished in the big cities, and some new fangled invention called the motion pictures were bursting upon the scene. But, for exciting, live family entertainment, in towns across the country, the real event of the year that you couldn’t beat was the Big Top.
The circus, as we know it, arrived here from England during the late 18th century. By the early 20th century it had become such a popular annual event that folks called in sick to work, just so they could spend the day under the Big Top. The sight of the circus train arriving in town was a cause for great excitement. The circus parade, marching through town with its seldom-seen wild animals, funny clowns and skilled performers dressed in colorful costumes, trooped all the way to an empty field. There the giant tents were erected, the seating was put in place and the barker would set up his ticket window. This event, in town for only a limited time, sent shivers up and down a child’s spine. It became the romantic, American dream to imagine running away to join the glitz and glamour of the circus.
From Simon Painter, Tim Lawson and MagicSpace, the producers of “The Illusionists,” that slick, wildly popular evening of prestidigitation that played Chicago a while back, we’re treated to another dazzlingly spectacular evening of fun. This time it’s a throwback to a more innocent time when the circus came to town. Once more it’s 1903 in the Windy City, and Ringmaster extraordinaire David Williamson opens the show with his infectious smile and hyperbolic barker banter. He points out the roustabouts who are hard at work pounding in the pilings that will support the enormous, decadent tent, a setting designed by scenic artist Todd Edward Ivins. He charms the audience with his puns and bad jokes, performs a few tricks with his bullwhip and solicits willing volunteers, mostly children, to join him onstage and introduces us to the various circus acts.
Among the impressively skilled, charismatic entertainers are three amazing acrobats called The Flying Fins, the Cycling Cyclone named Florian Blummel and an unbelievable contortionist named Senayet Asefa Amare, but known here as The Elastic Dislocationist. There’s Elena Gatilova, billed as Lucky Moon, whose show-stopping aerial ballet is luminescent and magical. There’s Les Incredibles, performed by Anny LaPlante and Andrei Kalesnikau; the Spanish “foot juggling” team of Alejandro and Ricardo Rossi; Duo Flash, featuring the acrobatic clowns, Yevgeniy Dashkivskyy and Yefrem Bitkine; and the balancing act of The Sensational (Mikhail) Sozonov. Impressive juggler Francois Bori, who goes by the moniker, The Great Gaston, truly lives up to his name. And Los Lopez, a trio of death-defying high wire performers, provide a heart-stopping finale to the evening. The entire show is directed by Neil Dorward, performed to the spectacular music of Evan Jolly and costumed with sparkle and spangles designed by Angela Aaron.
But a circus wouldn’t be complete without its animal acts. To pay homage to decades of impressive, majestic, hard-working performing pachyderms, we have Queenie, a life-size adult African elephant, and her adorable little baby, Peanut. The impressive thing about these two characters is that they’re actually puppets, fashioned in the style of the animals seen in The National Theatre’s production of “War Horse.” These awe-inspiring creatures look and act so real they make you forget that they’re being skillfully operated by Nyron Levy, Chris Milford, Daniel Fanning, Henry Maynard and Jessica Spalis, designed and directed by Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller. They are, without a doubt, the true stars of this production.
At a time when any throwback to a more innocent era is much welcome, this stunning pageant recalls a time when the Greatest Show on Earth would come to town. That period in entertainment history is all but gone now but, thanks to this spectacular, eye-popping production, on its way to New York City’s Madison Square Garden, it won’t soon be forgotten. Gorgeously lit by Paul Smith, this is an entertaining evening of dazzling splendor under the Big Top.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 21-26 by Broadway in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at all Ticketmaster retail locations, at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, by calling the Broadway in Chicago ticket line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.