It’s tremendous! It’s stupendous! It’s packed with thrills, chills, and magical fun for boys and girls of all ages! It’s none other than The Big Apple Circus, now camped out on miraculously vacant land adjacent to the Dulles Town Center mall in Sterling, Virginia.
The Big Apple Circus most certainly is not your three-ring Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey extravaganza. But it doesn’t try to be. It’s more like Cirque du Soleil back in the day, long before that French-Canadian troupe landed permanent venues in sunny Las Vegas. That is to say, the Big Apple folks eschew the lions and tigers and bears and elephants, too. Instead, they emphasize those good old-fashioned “circus arts” like juggling, trapeze, and dazzling magical tricks that hilariously fall apart.
Like the early Cirque shows, Big Apple, which traces its origins to the mid-1970s, is performed beneath a little big top that’s acoustically tuned for realistic musical and audio effects. Another plus, as they’re eager to point out: all the action in their single ring is never more than 50 feet from the farthest seat. This makes it great for families with excited, fidgety kids. Everyone is so close to the action it’s almost like they’re sitting in box seats. Furthermore, like any good circus, the action comes at you fast and furious, and the little tykes have zero opportunity to get bored or cranky.
The title of this year’s road show is “Dream Big.” Similar to other circus arts-centric traveling circuses, Big Apple advances a theme rather than a plot, one that’s meant to infuse the various acts with a vaguely unifying story line. In this case, namely, the idea is that if you have big dreams—like performing in a circus—sometimes your dreams can come true.
Set against the backdrop of a huge, Terry Gilliam-like mechanical contraption that houses the show’s tiny but excellent live band, Big Apple tosses out in rapid succession a series of live acts consisting of professional performers and troupes gathered from around the world.
The show starts out with China’s Shandong Acrobats, a cadre of manic performers who thrill the audience with seemingly impossible feats focused on tumbling through an ever-increasing number of simultaneously twirling jump ropes. They return in the show’s second stanza to perform human juggling routines—an act that proved somewhat less successful than the first this past weekend, as one or two of the “catchers” had some difficulty maintaining position.
The performance then cycles through a number of other acrobatic acts including Anna Volodko, a charming young Russian who specializes in aerial rope tricks; bizarrely-clad fellow Russian Dmitry Chernov who launches more juggling balls into the air than seems humanly possible; lithe Swiss balancing artist Melanie Chy; and Colombia’s spectacularly skilled Flying Cortes trapeze artists.
Punctuating all the thrills is the comedy magic team of Scott Nelson and Muriel Brugman whose classic comic hijinks were a delight. Particularly amusing were the antics of the loud-mouthed Ms. Brugman, that rarest of rare creatures, a female clown. Her sense of comic timing was nearly infallible, and she kept the audience in stitches every time she appeared.
They were aided and abetted by veteran clown and longtime Big Apple Circus favorite Barry Lubin whose unforgettable character of “Grandma” is making her final appearances with the Circus this season before Lubin retires her. Grandma starred in the funniest bit of the evening, enticing one of the dads in the audience to climb into the ring and engage in a long range water-spitting contest, which, of course, soon degenerated into a predictable battle between the two, earning this dad some serious points with his delighted young daughter.
Unlike the Ringling Brothers, Big Apple doesn’t boast any of the epic big animal acts we used to see in a lot of traveling circuses. From reasons ranging from economics to concern over the treatment of traveling animals, such acts have become less fashionable in recent years. But there are still enough animals of the tamer sort to keep things interesting, notably the beautiful Arabian horses who perform in tandem for American trainer Jenny Vidbel.
Ms. Vidbel returned later in the show with some cute dog tricks, surprising the audience with cameo appearances of a trained African porcupine and—perhaps never before seen in a circus—a spunky trained capybara as well.
The entire performance was hosted by singing ringmistress Jenna Robinson who’s brash, Broadway style voice narrated the action, introduced each act, and encouraged everyone in attendance to have a good time.
The Big Apple Circus is that rarest of entertainments these days. It’s good clean fun that the entire family can enjoy without having to worry about scatological slips of the tongue. There were smiles all around, and the littlest tykes in particular were wide-eyed with wonder and excitement. And these days, there’s a lot to be said for that.
Produced by The Big Apple Circus
Artistic Director: Guillaume Dufresnoy
Director and choreographer: Renaud Doucet
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including one intermission.