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CIRCUS REVIEW : Ringling's Clown Lives Up to Big-Top Billing


ANAHEIM — Circus people have always had a way with superlatives.

But this year's edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which runs through Sunday at The Pond, is different. The reason is that in between all those wonderfully excessive feats of "jumbo-jumping jubilation" and the "perilous, portentous pinwheelings" (their words, can you tell?) lie some comparatively quiet moments that will captivate anyone who loves to laugh.

The interludes come courtesy of David Larible, a seventh-generation circus performer from Verona, Italy, who is the only clown in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's collective 125-year history to headline a show. You'll have no trouble recognizing him because his face is splashed across every Ringling bus board, newspaper ad and program. You can even buy a soft-bodied David doll (sorry, guy, no reflection on your physique) at the souvenir stand.

But this time, the ballyhoo is warranted. Larible is incredible. He is a gifted mime who can tell a story with a few gestures or charm an arena full of people with a raised eyebrow and crooked smile. The crowd at a recent performance at the Long Beach Arena adored him.

The Ringling folks obviously recognize Larible's appeal. He turns up practically everywhere. Besides his two center-ring acts, he heads the show's opening parade and performs several times between acts, whether that means shimmying alongside showgirls or partnering a ballerina. He even joins the Chicago Kidz, an amazing and very hip acrobatic team that has been featured in previous Ringling shows, in their finale by leaping over four elephants. (The Kidz do it for real.)

Larible's main bits require lots of audience participation. In Long Beach, he selected four likely looking folk--two young men, a young woman and an older woman whose antics nearly stole the show--and seated them in the north, east, south and west points of the ring. He then led them through a series of comic plate-tossing maneuvers as the orchestra kept time.

Larible returned to the center ring later with a grand opera spoof. He outfits a woman in a foufy princess hat, a man in a floppy cap with a ridiculous feather and another man in a macho conquistador helmet and sword. He then conducts them as they lip-sync their way through well-known arias. The bit's finale--which involves lots of faked suicides, a falling chandelier (shades of "Phantom") and members of the circus' stage crew mouthing Verdi's "Anvil Chorus"--is hilarious.

In both of his sketches, Larible's subtle, sophisticated humor carries the day, along with his ability to relinquish the spotlight to volunteers without losing control of the act.

Classic circus acts haven't been forgotten. They are sprinkled throughout the show, mingled with contemporary, Vegas-like spectacles.

In the animal department, 24-year-old Mark Oliver Gebel (son of Ringling's longtime star trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, who retired from the ring in 1994 with much hoopla but continues to work behind the scenes) directs a changing lineup of animal performers, beginning with a fairly benign horse and camel act and culminating with a three-ring showcase of elephants.

Gebel's sister, Tina Gebel-DelMoral, contributes an elegant liberty horse act, and big-cat trainer Tyrone Taylor, another Gebel-Williams protege, presents a genuinely thrilling interlude with a cage full of Bengal tigers.

This year's edition also offers the "Emperor of Inferno," a bare-chested, fire-eating, death-defying kind of guy who caps his performance with a blind leap through a flaming ring of knives that looked convincingly sharp even half an arena away.

In the neighboring ring, a Chinese troupe making its U.S. debut performed a unique acrobatic act wearing two-foot-high stilts.

There is also some splendid and occasionally heart-stopping aerial work, including trapeze artist Jean-Christophe Fournier and a bizarre but compelling black-lit act by circus newcomers the Bungee Trapeze Troupe.

For cycle fans, there's the freestyle BMX riders (who take to the extreme the usual stunts kids perform on the street) and the ear-splitting Globe of Death, which features a trio of motocross riders whirling at high speeds inside a steel sphere.

* Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus continues through Sunday at The Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. There is no show tonight. Performances continue Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.50 to $15.50, with limited ringside seats for $25. Call Ticketmaster (714) 740-2000 or The Pond box office (714) 704-2500. Parking for cars is $6.

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