There’s something hopelessly retro about the circus.
Kids today would rather stare at their tablets than see acrobats soaring through space. Circus clowns are often the stuff of media memes, not guffaws.
Enter “Circus 1903,” an unabashedly old school take on big-top theatrics. Suddenly, that smart phone doesn’t have the same appeal -- at least for two glorious hours.
“Circus 1903 -- The Golden Age of Circus” embraces both the past and present. It’s a crush of death-defying stunts that understands we’re living in the 21st century. The costumes have a modern day twinkle, even those that seem ripped from 100-plus years ago.
The music clearly keeps modern sensibilities in mind while evoking circuses of yore.
At times, the moldiest moments come during a side show detour. Those corny jokes may set your teeth on edge, but the laughs return with a fervor you won’t expect.
The Denver leg of the show’s current tour kicks off with the Ringmaster, part stand-up, part provocateur. David Williamson isn’t just your affable guide. He’s part of the act, a comic rogue who turns audience interaction into a sublime art.
“It’s 1903. People aren’t litigious,” he cracks after throwing a full bag of popcorn into the crowd. And he’s just warming up.
He serves up the laughter while placing the shenanigan in context. His greatest contribution, though, is bringing a gaggle of kiddies onto the stage. For one night, the gambit worked better than anyone could expect.
Given Williamson’s chops, it’s obvious he could turn even a monosyllabic group of volunteers into comic gold.
FAST FACT: The creators behind “Circus 1903” chose that year to highlight because that’s when Barnum & Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ came back to the states following an extensive European tour.
The acrobats own the show all the same. Take the teeter totter routine, where two performers take turns flying high after his partner lands on the wooden plank. It’s elegant with a whiff of danger, but the presentation is perfection.
Florian Blummel’s bicycle “ballet” is so elegant you have to blink to realize just how brilliant the balancing act truly is.
The production’s music makes every routine better. It might be a hard charging romp one moment, then a gentle piano ballad the next.
And, in one ingenious stroke, the music goes silent.
So we can hear the stars grunt as they heave one another into the theater’s air.
The show’s signature visual is a bit of a letdown. No, the gargantuan elephant puppet lives up to the advanced hype. It’s a gorgeous creation, lumbering across the stage thanks to the ingenious puppeteer team. The “creature’s” sequence, though, lacks the theatrical pop of other performances.
And talk about diversity. The production features players from across the globe. The Lopez Family hails from Mexico, while juggler extraordinaire Francois Borie calls Paris home.
Modern circus, like Cirque du Soleil, focus on the artistry as well as the trappings. Their collective work is equally jaw-dropping, but “Circus 1903” offers something those shows lack. A populist spirit runs through every routine.
There’s no artifice to be found, beyond the performers ending each stunt with an arm flipping flourish.
This is entertainment for the masses, without apology. And you’d better bring the family for this riveting, squeaky clean affair.
The evening’s biggest drama came when one of the performers failed to land a stunt cleanly. Clearly shaken, the show’s music abruptly stopped. The acrobat’s partner made sure his colleague wasn’t hurt.
They both took a beat and resumed the act. Triumphantly, of course, with the crowd cheering them on.
Some might call it a miscue. Audiences know better. The hiccup showed why circuses still thrill us all these years later.
“Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus” is playing in the following cities:
Denver, CO -- Feb. 21 -- 26
Boston, MA -- Mar. 8 -- 12
Detroit, MI -- Mar. 14 -- 19
Chicago, IL -- Mar. 21 -- 26