The Big Apple Circus is in fine shape as it celebrates its 29th New York season. The three-month stint at Lincoln Center, where the big top is pitched (just between the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York State Theater), is sure to please family audiences who have made Big Apple an annual holiday event. Thirty-eight week tour travels on to Atlanta, Boston, New Haven, Conn., and elsewhere before wrapping up in July.
This year’s show is titled “Step Right Up!” as in the barker’s spiel at an 1890s midway. Theme serves as an excuse for some Gay Nineties costumes, with stripes, straw hats and parasols, but only infrequently influences the entertainment. Event is sparked by three clowns, the midway barker (Joel Jeske, in Harold Lloyd glasses); the jovial and inventive French clown Francesco (Francis Brunaud); and Big Apple’s star attraction, Grandma (Barry Lubin, in frilly wig and pearls). All three are consistently funny, and they work extremely well when joined together for the second act beach scene.
All the typical circus acts are here, with Justin Case (on his trick bicycles) and Johnny Peers (with his canine Muttville Comix) garnering smiles and guffaws all around. There are also the requisite acrobats, trapeze artists, a balancing act, an equestrian number and more.
While a jump-rope exhibition might sound dull, performer Svetlana Ivtchenko (of Svetlana & Gennadiy) jumps one made of what look like colored plastic golf balls strung together while balancing a beach ball on her head. What makes the act somewhat startling is that she does this while standing on Gennadiy Fedunov’s head. That’s right, jumping — and landing — on the fellow’s head, without knocking him in the nose with the golf balls.
Big Apple is the smallest of the big circus operations, dwarfed by the behemoth Ringling Bros. and Cirque du Soleil franchises. But the audience receives a far more intimate experience. House is arranged so that all seats are within 14 rows of the main (and only) ring; you can almost reach out and touch the clowns here.
There’s also a personal touch and obvious pride in performance, no doubt influenced by the presence of founder and artistic director Paul Binder, live and center ring at each and every show. This is the kind of quality control that can’t be achieved with multiple troupes overseen by on-site managers. It helps distinguish Big Apple with a warm and friendly feeling that engulfs the aud.