The recent demise of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus freed its animals (hooray!) but also put hundreds of uniquely skilled performers out of work (boo!). Specialized art forms that have been passed down through generations — think trapeze, high-wire, clowning, balancing acts, aerial work — suddenly seem in danger of dying out, unless folks who have dedicated lifetimes to these classic skills suddenly go modern with Cirque du Soleil or its many imitators.
Enter Circus 1903, a two-hour extravaganza that imbues traditional circus acts with old-timey nostalgia and acknowledges the elephant in the room through life-size puppets. And you know what? It works.
It's straightforward without seeming cheap, flashy without appearing overdone, wholesome without feeling corny (though you should watch out for popcorn projectiles). It nods at historically exotic mainstays such as the sideshow — here it's the lovely and astoundingly elastic Senayet Assefa Amara — but doesn't linger long enough to get trapped by the exhibit's tawdry underbelly.
Perhaps most importantly, though, it's emceed by a ringmaster (Willy Whipsnade, or David Williamson as he's known outside the big top) who is effortlessly charming but still razor-sharp with his audience improv.
The show's subtitle is "The Golden Age of the Circus," and it has, indeed, landed in the sweet spot of entertainment. There's nothing inappropriate or salacious, making it safe for young viewers. But just as kids will be mesmerized by the sparkly costumes (courtesy of designer Angela Aaron) and epic music (composed by Evan Jolly), adults might bite off a fingernail or two once all the soaring, leaping, and spinning is through. These performers do fly through the air with the greatest of ease, but while they do you might forget to stop breathing.
Each act is showcased impeccably, from the light-speed juggling of Francois Borie (known as the Great Gaston) to a "bicycle ballet" from the Cycling Cyclone, Florian Blummel. Aerialist Lucky Moon (Elena Gatilova) receives a particularly beautiful presentation thanks to Paul Smith, whose lighting is some of the best in recent memory, circus or not.
And those elephants? They're simply stunning. Manipulating puppets designed by Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller for Significant Object, six puppeteers bring a majestic mother and her scampering calf to life (look closely and you'll see some handlers propped up on stilts). It's the inventive and humane debut that elephants always deserved.
Society for the Performing Arts presentation of Circus 1903 plays at Jones Hall June 9 - 11.