The 106-year-old New Victory, Broadway’s oldest extant theater, is one of the few houses to feature two rows of boxes, with the balcony boxes high up near the top of the proscenium arch. Circus Oz puts a clown in the box and has him dive over the audience onto the stage, no strings attached. That’s only one of the jaw-dropping acts on the program of this Australian troupe, making its fourth visit to the New Victory.
The show opens with a beefy strongman riding a bicycle in circles on the not-especially-large stage. A second man climbs up onto his shoulders, then a woman. Three more jump on, the bicycle still maneuvering the tight center-stage circles. In moments there are nine Aussies — or is it 10? — on the bicycle.
Minutes later a firehouse pole appears, hanging from the light bridge. The acrobats each do a skilled if not astonishing swing or two, until suddenly there are seven of them ranged up the pole, right arms and legs horizontal, like so many monkeys on a vine. They all jump off and are replaced by one fellow entwined atop the pole, upside down. A drum roll, please, as before our unbelieving eyes he swiftly slides down head-first, just managing to stop before he crashes into the deck. “Laughing at Gravity” they call the show, although the audience demonstrates considerably more amazement than laughter.
Thrills like this appear throughout the two 50-minute sessions, with most of the 20 acts generating a moment or two of awe.
The 11 well-defined performers wander through the house before the show, talking to the customers while cannily establishing their characters. Yes, there’s a strongman and a strongwoman, a juggling contortionist and a couple of trapeze artists. However, all 11 seem to pitch in on more than half the acts, making for a well-balanced event.
They even take up musical instruments — shades of Broadway’s recent Sondheim events — while the three-person band gets in on the act as well.
In the grand first-act finale, John O’Hagan and his string bass get hoisted to the flies, with the instrument seeming to chase the hapless musician as a tap-dancing horse taps and the onstage prop piano explodes. At that point one of the clowns comes before the curtain apologetically, requesting an intermission due to technical difficulties.
The Circus Oz troupe, musicians included, appears to be a team with no stars or divas. This makes for a circus of equals with different talents, each getting multiple shots in the spotlight.
Other highlights include a trapeze act with two doe-eyed acrobats, seemingly in a trance; a section in which human pyramids form recognizable facsimiles of the Kremlin and the Eiffel Tower; a fellow swinging on straps (rather than ropes), who more or less wraps himself in ribbons and then lets it rip.
Most astonishing is a clown on an overlong lamppost, up near the top of the theater, swaying carelessly to and fro.
Circus Oz features at least four acts with performers swinging out over the audience, with very little apparent room for error. It all makes for a slim and trim big-top parade, with outsized thrills virtually in your lap.