If there is one single moment in the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey production under the big top in Coney Island that captures the flaw of this one-ring circus, it is midway through the first act, when the stunning Diana Vedyashkina walks onto the stage surrounded by rats.
Oh, sorry, they were not rats. They were dachshunds.
Were they cute? Of course. Where they talented? Absolutely. Could they do feats of acrobatics of which I was incapable even as a young virile man? Certainly.
But were they virtually impossible to see? Alas, yes.
Vedyashkina’s canine calisthenics were just one example of a Ringling Brothers show that could neither fill expectations nor the big tent next to the Abe Stark ice rink.
The show’s scale and grandeur is almost always off. The second act, for example, opens with workers installing a mighty iron fence, the better to protect the audience from the ferocious white tigers to come. But when the stunning Vincenta Pages — dressed in a form-fitting coat that’s conveniently cut to reveal her crotch and her decolletage — leads in her band of Siberian cats, the animals rolled on the floor and nuzzled each other.
Even the kids in the front row sighed, “Awww, cute,” rather than cowering in fear.
One of the most-hyped acts, the precision cross-bow shooting of Martti Peltonen was awkwardly staged. Not only did he miss his target a few times, but the finale of the act — Peltonen hits a target that sets of a chain reaction of pre-set cross-bows firing until one arrow hits an apple on Peltonen’s head — couldn’t be fully appreciated by at least one-third of the audience.
The problems of scale don’t only affect the small, personal acts. Some of the biggest, grandest parts of the show — such as three motorcyclists speeding around a steel ball of death, or the acrobat caught in a rotating hamster-wheel contraption — are actually not in the ring itself, but in the shadows at the back corners of the house. Both were missed opportunities.
Clearly, this tent is too large for this one-ring Ringling.
But do not get me wrong. Even if this is not truly the “Greatest Show on Earth,” it still has a fitting, T-shirt-worthy motto: “Best Live Show You Can See Anywhere This Summer for $10.” The show itself is two solid hours (minus a wasted 20-minute intermission) and there are lots of activities for the kids for 90 minutes before the lights dim and the circus comes to town. It’s a full night of fun.
Judging by the crowd reaction on opening night, the elephants alone are worth the price of admission. Now, I’ve never had much use for pachyderms. They’re slow. They smell. And they’re politically compromised. But kids love them. Better still, ticketholders can look at them close up by heading backstage before the show.
And there is no better clown in Brooklyn today — current officeholders excepted, of course — than Justin Case, the Franco-frenetic stunt bicyclist, acrobat, comedian and flame-defier. Foolishly, producers of the show waste him for the first half-hour, insisting on having him enter as a bungling interloper hoping to perform. This unnecessary plot continues until the bandleader feigns that there are “technical difficulties,” and Case is, finally, summoned to do his act.
As my younger colleague Mike McLaughlin points out in his “review,” Case does not disappoint once he gets his chance. His acrobatics atop a rattletrap bicycle are itself a show-stopper, but Case performs them while cracking jokes and, more important, bringing the ol’ Ringling spirit to the proceedings.
Later, he rode a tiny, palm-sized bicycle through a ring of fire. It was a great bit.
Case doesn’t entirely save this oft-kilter show, but he comes close.
Finally, a few practical notes: There are many bad seats under this big top. Avoid sections A4, A1 and C1 (you’ll be behind pillars). Insist on sections A2, A3, B2 and C2.
Coney Island Boom A Ring [West 21 Street between the Boardwalk and Surf Avenue, (201) 507-8900], through Sept. 7. Tickets, $10-$65. For info, visit www.ringling.com.