Never quite as sexy as the Cirque du Soleil nor as regimented as the late Barnum and Bailey Circus, Big Apple Circus is the human-scaled circus that everyone at one time or other wanted to join.
Of course, even in the excited and delighted audience—full of families and a cross section of New York—there is probably no one who could get up on a high wire like the famous Wallendas led by patriarch Nik who—unique to themselves—perform a seven-person pyramid rolling across the high wire on bicycles with just balancing poles and steely nerves to keep them company.
The Wallenda family’s act is the climax of a show that is held together by Ringmaster Ty McFarlan and the ongoing antics of Grandma the Clown and Joel Jeske aka Mr. Joel. The big-voiced and charismatic Ringmaster Ty prowls about introducing acts, touting tidbits about Big Apple Circus and generating excitement while Grandma and Mr. Joel involve audience members in good-natured slapstick shtick involving water, balloons and costumes.
Grandma, long a symbol of Big Apple Circus, is a bemused, human-scaled figure dressed in dowdy garments, who makes a perfect foil for the slightly sad-sack Mr. Joel. Both provide respites between the acts which include a ring full of imposing physical specimens demonstrating incredible skill and flexibility like the roller-skating duo Dandino and Luciana who perform hair-raising lifts on a tiny round platform; contortionist Elayne Kramer who, her back bent over so far that her legs shade her head, manages to shoot an arrow into a balloon with her feet holding the bow; and Gamal Garcia who juggles shiny pins until they become whizzing blurs in the air.
Of course, all circuses have to have at least one animal act, even in these politically correct times, and Big Apple is no exception. Vivacious Jenny Vidbel’s equine act begins with ten tiny ponies—five black and five white—prancing about the borders of the ring in separate circles, finally sorting themselves out into one large circle alternating black and white. Then ten large horses, similarly colored, trot on in disciplined formations, finally all twenty mixing and matching with the tiny models, to the pleasure of the kids in the audience. Ms. Vidbel also uses cute dogs of all sizes in her act, evoking even more “oohs” and “ahs.”
The Anastisini Brothers astonish with their muscular balancing act while Jan Damm keeps the audience breathless balancing on the Rola Bola, tiny teeter-totters that are stacked higher and higher, giving Damm more and more difficult levels to balance on. He makes the most of convincing the audience that he is forever about to lose his balance.
For me, the most exciting act is the Flying Tunizianis, aerialists whose trapeze maneuvers include a climactic quadruple somersault in the air. There’s something about those “daring young men (and women) on the flying trapeze”!
This brand new edition of Big Apple Circle is directed by Mark Lonergan who uses all his ample theatrical experience to give a dramatic arc to the show, helped by Antoinette DiPietropolo’s choreography, Jeff Croiter’s dramatic lighting, the colorfully imaginative costumes of Amy Clark and the atmospheric settings by Rob Bissinger and Anita LaScala.
Big Apple Circus 2017 (through January 7, 2018)
Damrosch Park, 60 Lincoln Center Plaza, between 62nd and 63rd Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-757-2330 (during business hours) or 855-258-0718 (off hours) or visit http://www.bigapplecircus.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission