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Yes, it's different; it's just not any better

July 22, 2006|Jay Fernandez | Special to The Times

Super Silva was a few strides into his gravity-defying upside-down walk high above the floor of the darkened Staples Center when a 12-year-old boy in the audience pointed at the focused acrobat and said, "Oh, look: 'Fear Factor.' "

So this is what it's come to ...

In a 21st century world where kids are exposed to maggot-eating reality-show contestants, inane David Blaine stunts and all manner of dexterous, speechifying jungle beasts at the gigaplex, it's hard for regular old circus performers to arouse much excitement. But hey, let's send in the clowns anyway.

The 136th Edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus paraded into town this week for a two-week tour of the Los Angeles area (it moves to Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim on Wednesday). The whole extravaganza, updated substantially for the first time in decades, tries very hard to please and impress. But in its efforts to prove its relevance, the show comes off like the aging soft-shoe guy, dancing within an inch of his life as a rising ocean of flop sweat encroaches on his desperate grin, who thinks that because he got his ear pierced the kids will now think he's cool.

What is this "Circus of Dreams"-themed show going to have to offer the two teenagers at the concession stand who are sporting Slayer and Iced Earth T-shirts and are likely immersed in "Jackass" lore? Well, how about former "American Idol" contestant Jennifer Fuentes as master of ceremonies, synth-pop versions of "Crazy Train" and "I Want Candy," and crudely animated talking elephants referencing "bling-bling"?

This new version of the classic show has done away with the three rings, so the performance space now consists of a wide-open 130-by-80-foot floor, through which the people and props for each of the 20 or so acts rotate. And a round, 24-foot jumbo screen, which displays pre-taped interstitial bits of backstage banter to bridge the gaps between on-the-floor events, now hovers distractingly over one end of the arena.

Ringling Bros.' appeal was its stubbornly old-fashioned charm, its delightful invitation to bask in the simple wonder evoked by exotic animals and even stranger human beings performing odd feats. But in an effort to compete with both its young audience members' ludicrously high expectations (and short attention spans) and competing shows in the Vegas/Cirque du Soleil mold, the beloved circus has lost part of its soul.

The well-trained performers remain committed, but the show is now so over-produced it makes the Oscar telecast seem like an Arctic Monkeys gig. They've also grafted a narrative onto the proceedings -- about a family of four who are given the opportunity to realize their circus dreams -- that feels forced and undercuts the more naturalistic controlled chaos that seemed to define previous incarnations of the show.

It's not entirely Ringling Bros.' fault, of course. It's hard to induce gasps of wonder or horror when half of what's readily available on TV is a circus freak show. And when kids can rent "The Chronicles of Narnia" and marvel at lions talking and rodents bickering with great realism, it's hard to be wowed by a cat pushing a bird on a little metal ball.

As it was, the only cats in attendance turned out to be of an incredibly obedient Persian variety, which preened and plummeted and pounced and paraded birds around on their backs. If we're to believe People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Ringling Bros.' longtime nemesis, the missing larger felines are a result of malevolent mistreatment by the circus owners and the animal-rights organization's own efforts to force the show to retire them (the circus says their absence was merely a creative decision). Indeed, before the show about two dozen PETA volunteers were camped out across from the box office holding aloft signs that read, "Circuses make elephants sad" and "Ringling Bros.: lion killers."

Which is not to say that the youngest kids in the audience didn't find the whole thing fascinating. As for the grown-ups, whose faces registered everything from boredom to a horrified loss of innocence, it's difficult to be impressed by the limited trapeze and aerial work when you can now see more amazing aerobatics by the talented ladies at Scores. When the strongman Herkules (aided by his Herkulettes) caught an authentic cannonball fired from about 20 feet away at what we were told was 75 miles per hour, someone cracked, "Boy, those cannons must not have done much in the Civil War." He's got a point. If that was 75 mph, then I drove home going 190.

Nonetheless, there were some very entertaining segments. The hat jugglers and the several acrobatic displays, including a complicated foot juggling routine using humans as the balls, showed some real ingenuity. Madame Shamsheeva's cats, birds and dogs brought some cute fun to the proceedings. And the seven motorcyclists crisscrossing at high speeds on the inside of the Globe of Death is always a crowd-pleaser.

But in this brave new world of can-you-top-this spectacle, an Asian elephant marching to cheesy hip-hop and doing a handstand just doesn't cut it anymore. If that parading pachyderm doesn't do five minutes of stand-up and then break into some krumping, well, the kids are going to go hang out with Johnny Knoxville.



What: The 136th edition of the "Greatest Show on Earth" from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey

Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., L.A.

When: 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday

Price: $14 to $85

Info: (213) 480-3232;



Where: Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim

When: Wednesday through Aug. 6; check website for show times

Price: $12 opening night; $14 to $85

Info: (714) 704-2500;

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