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Little Big Top

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the circus giant, is taking a small show on the road in, of all things, a tent.

April 08, 1999|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARASOTA, Fla. — The Big Top is back.

For the first time in more than 40 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is mounting a show under a tent.

Barnum's Kaleidoscape is described as an upscale, up-close hybrid of circus and theater that unfolds under the spires of a striking red and white tent first erected for rehearsals two months ago here in this Gulf Coast city that was the winter home of the circus for three decades.

The tent now sits in Irvine Meadows, where the first of 17 preview performances began Wednesday. From there the Big Top goes to Century City on April 30 for what is being called the world premiere. The show will remain in Century City through May 23 before the start of a 40-week tour in several western states.

For Feld Entertainment, Barnum's Kaleidoscape is a $10-million gamble and an effort to cash in on the success of smaller, more intimate productions like Cirque du Soleil and the Big Apple Circus, both of which send out traveling companies that perform in tents.

"This is a designer circus, and we're waiting on the edge of our seats to see the results," said historian Greg Parkinson, executive director of Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis. "It's a risk. There are only 1,850 seats, and for the size of the investment, it's going to take a high percentage of sales [to turn a profit]. And you never know until people start buying tickets."

Tickets start at $22.50 and range to $48. That top price buys a ringside seat on a plush red velvet sofa for what impresario Kenneth Feld calls a unique show that signals a departure for a venerable circus company that, since its founding in 1871, has presented a menagerie of leaping lions, fire eaters and freaks.

There are a couple of animal acts in Barnum's Kaleidoscape, along with trapeze artists, jugglers, acrobats and featured clown David Larible, 1999 winner of the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo Golden Clown Award.

But there is no sawdust here, no elephants and not even any peanuts. Rather than canvas, the tent is made of flameproof Italian vinyl. It is air-conditioned. The flooring is carpeted wood. The ticket-takers are polite and well-spoken, and even the toilets, which are enclosed in custom-designed trailers, are staffed with attendants.

Under this one-ring Big Top, the circus has never seemed so close or been presented in surroundings so lushly rococo. The first section of the tent that patrons enter is hung with colorful tapestries, decorated with art nouveau flourishes and filled with live music from the circus' house band.

Popcorn is sold from old-fashioned circus wagons. Also available are carved roast beef sandwiches, veggie wraps, tiramisu and cappuccino.

A quintet of British comics works the room, helping to create an atmosphere intended to suggest a festive neighborhood cocktail party. Observant guests will soon realize that mingling with the crowd are the performers themselves.

From the reception tent, the audience passes through a reflecting cylindrical entry to the main tent and padded seats around the one 42-foot diameter ring, where Larible--who was just outside chatting with the customers--is now in bed, about to embark on a fantastical dream-world adventure that the audience is about to share.

After the audience is seated, other performers help the clown put on his makeup and the house band strikes up an original score. For the next two hours and 15 minutes, Larible wanders through what director Raffaele DeRitis has described as a surrealistic party.

Circus diva Sylvia Zerbini moves with effortless grace from a high-flying trapeze act to conducting an equine ballet with six Arabian horses. Juggling maestro Picasso Jr. tosses plastic plates and balls into the air and into the audience and seems to keep them all aloft at once.

The Sahara Statues, three men in gold bodysuits, strike impossible poses, while Pipo, described as a classic European Harlequin, plays sidekick to the awe-struck clown Larible.

At one point, a flock of geese pads into the ring, escorting a tiny man named Istvan Toth. At 33 inches, he is seven inches shorter than Gen. Tom Thumb, a star of the Ringling Bros. circus more than a century ago.

The overarching conceit of Barnum's Kaleidoscape is that in the reception tent, the audience meets a troupe of ordinary-looking folks who pull on tights, apply some greasepaint, morph into circus stars and then stage a magical entertainment for their new friends.

And after the finale, these same performers return to the reception tent to say goodbye to their guests.

For Tented Shows, the Obituary Was Premature

When "The Greatest Show on Earth" last played under a tent in Pittsburgh in 1956, Ringling Bros.' then-chairman John Ringling North pronounced the tented circus a thing of the past. Economics, television, labor problems and weather were all cited in the obituary.

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