With the resounding success of Cirque du Soleil’s various incarnations all but sounding the death knell for his tired and antiquated Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it was only a matter of time before impresario Kenneth Feld would need to scale down his three rings of gymnastic chimps and pooping elephants and rework the old-fashioned circus concept for the new millennium. With Kaleidoscape, he has turned that particular feat brilliantly, cloning aspects of Cirque without ripping them off outright and showcasing possibly the most intimate traveling tentbound production ever mounted. The Greatest Show On Earth rises again.
If Kaleidoscape lacks the full-on “Ooh! Aah!” factor that Cirque tends to inspire, it more than makes up for it with some touches that lend the enterprise a delicious, yuppie-friendly feel. In rolling out its first circus underneath a tent in more than 40 years, Barnum has made everything bigger by shrinking it down, presenting a true designer circus composed of a single-ring surrounded by seating that never rests more than 50 feet from the action.
In the Cirque du Soleil tradition, the animals have largely disappeared, aside from a flock of trained geese and a half-dozen snow-white Arabian horses. They have been replaced by bottle players, trapeze artists, highwire walkers, mouth jugglers, Frisbee flingers, acrobats, buff contortionists, crossbow archers and even a 27-inch midget (or “little person” in the politically correct vernacular).
There’s no sawdust on the floor, no snarling tigers jumping through fiery hoops. Kaleidoscape is ’90s upscale all the way. The Italian vinyl tent isn’t just air- conditioned but “climate controlled.” There is actually enough room in the aisles to stretch one’s legs, and if you have the money, you can reserve one of several red velvet sofas that seat six. The people who take your ticket are polite and well-groomed. The Port-a-Pottys reside in custom-designed trailers with attendants.
And then there is the food. No peanuts here, folks. There is cotton candy and popcorn, sold from an old-fashioned wagon for $5 per box. (What was it P.T. Barnum once said about suckers?) And patrons can also graze on Wolfgang Puck pizza, hand-carved beef brisket sandwiches, veggie wraps, tiramisu and almond-cashew mix, all washed down with cappuccino or a nice merlot.
It all amounts to a $10 million gamble that already appears to be paying off, if the enthusiastic sellout crowds that have convinced Feld to hold over the Century City engagement for two weeks beyond its original May 23 closing date are an accurate barometer.
One suspects that the primary reason for the quick embracing of a show whose top ticket is $48 is its dogged attention to audience interaction. A preshow begins an hour before the actual show, allowing attendees to interact and bond with the performers (many of them in street clothes and resembling fans themselves). During the show, audience members are pulled onto the 42-foot diameter ring to participate in sketches. And at the end, the entire troupe forms circle-style in the lobby to greet guests again and say their goodbyes.
It’s a charming little flourish that works because the performers are so uniformly young and energetic. This is no middle-aged, seen-it-all group but a blend of enthusiastic newcomers and vets who quite clearly give it their all.
Chief clown David Larible is feisty and funny and skilled at getting the crowd excited. Of the acts, a fellow who calls himself Picasso Jr. stands out for his phenomenal ability to “juggle” pingpong balls using only his mouth. And Alexander Petrov and wife Lucy Kirilova make a daring team on the high wire. On one recent night, however, there were some clear flubs, showing the rawness of a relatively new troupe looking to find its rhythm.
Yet there was even something refreshing about the screwups in Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, underscoring a human element sometimes missing from Cirque. Not that Kaleidoscape is close to performing at the Cirque level. But it doesn’t need to be as good as Cirque in order to be viewed a creative triumph and a popular success.