Circus review: Amazing feats under the Big Top

During Thursday’s opening night of the 137th edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Oakland, a big video screen at the side of the floor (a new feature) flashed with a phrase that said the circus is older than baseball, Disney and Coca-Cola.

It’s a sobering fact; what’s equally interesting is that traditional elements of the most recent version of The Greatest Show on Earth are by far its most fascinating parts.

Take the dog-act — something even the persistent animal rights activists won’t protest. The acrobatic Maltese, Yorkies and poodles under the direction of the Chilean Olate family are wild, adorable powder puffs flying through the air. The star is Priscilla the poodle, whose maniacal succession of back flips is worthy of Olympic attention.

Then there’s trainer Tabayara Maleuenda with his gorgeous white and Royal Bengal tigers. It’s clear that Taba isn’t simply setting up and playing out tricks; he and each of the big cats (he calls them by name) clearly have a special connection.

The old-fashioned stunts are still thrilling. The teeterboard acrobats and gymnasts in the Bulgarian Palazovi Troupe successfully complete a five-person pyramid. Brothers Mauricio and Albert Aguilar from Mexico get your heart started with their balancing act on a wire 25 feet in the air. The international Flying Poemas dazzle on the trapeze.

Longtime fans of Ringling Bros., however, might notice that this year’s event is not necessarily the extravaganza it has been in past decades. Costumes seem thinner and less sparkly. There are fewer clowns, and the big production numbers don’t quite have the delightfully tacky glitz and glamour of years gone by.

Still, they work, particularly in the bordering-on-high-concept “Bello Bration,” which closes the first act. The number has everyone in the company wearing goofy wigs and dressed as Bello, the daredevil clown with the outrageous up-do who headlines this edition of the circus. While an affable and able stuntman, Bello’s shtick doesn’t quite sustain the show.

At the beginning, he falls in love with aerialist Erendira, and they do have a moment together on 70-foot sway poles, but it’s less engaging than it sounds — as are the Wheel of Steel, a huge hamster wheel-like apparatus on which Nikolas Wallenda and Bello cavort, and human cannonball Tina Miser, whose husband, Brian, went missing opening night.

Ringmaster/singer Tyron McFarlan keeps the pace nicely; he’s got a commanding presence that’s big enough not to be threatened by the unusual addition of contemporary music to the circus mix. At a couple of points, strains of the ubiquitous “You’re Beautiful” could be heard; the song actually worked.

There is one area in which the “less is more” theory proves positive in regard to the 137th Ringling circus: For most of the show, there’s just one center ring, not the typical three. For audiences who like to focus, it’s a pleasure to enjoy each astonishing feat as it happens, rather than experience the frustration of trying to look three places at once.

IF YOU GO

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Where: Oracle Arena, 7000 Coliseum Way, Oakland

When: 11::30 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday

Tickets: $15 to $95

Contact: (415) 421-8497 or www.ticketmaster.com  

Note: Show moves to HP Pavilion, 525 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and 11:30 a.m., 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25-26. <

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