It used to be that the circus was an affair no one would dare miss. A train rolled into town in the dead of night and a red and white-striped big top was mysteriously erected by morning. Before going under the main tent, people would nervously shell out money in order to witness the freak show and peek out from between their fingers at the bearded lady, tattooed man, and Siamese twins hidden away from daylight. The show itself was a three-ring extravaganza that dared you to look away for even a second, lest you miss some death-defying stunt or act.
However, those days are long over, as most Americans are no longer mystified by trains, tattoos can be found simply by stepping outside, and the bar for what’s considered absurd or grotesque is no longer set at someone who weighs as little as 350 pounds.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus has had to change with the times, and the show now on at Madison Square Garden through April 6 does not resemble the show you may or may not remember as child. Today’s circus is a kid-friendly production, full of song-and-dance numbers and more pratfalls from clowns than appearances by animals—something akin to a children’s version of the Superbowl Halftime Show.
The hallmarks of the circus are still there—a ringmaster, trouble-causing clowns, trapeze artists, contortionists, a high wire act—but they’ve lost the feel of the frenetic, bizarre, and enchanted spectacle of generations past. The acts all seem safe, with the exception of the cage-encased, motorcycle-riding “RoboRiders,” who had seven riders gunning it at full speed in a small steel globe, and “The Flying Cossacks,” a group of horsemen able to flip, jump, and balance on, off, and around several large galloping horses. All the other acts were performed mostly one-by-one in the center of the arena floor so audiences remained focused.
A good chunk of the show is dedicated to a clown named Tom, who taunts the ringmaster with everything from trying to stage his own circus to blowing bubbles indoors (illegal in the Garden, apparently) to stealing his top hat. Tom probably gets more stage time than the ringmaster, and though he made the kids laugh, I found my mind drifting to my memories of Gunther Gabel Williams and wondering when I was going to see someone put their life in danger.
To that end, animal rights and labor laws must prevent it from being possible to keep a menagerie of hard-working exotic and wild animals on hand, which is just as well, since the tigers—whose only tricks were to jump over one another and stand up on their hind legs—seemed lethargic. Given the infinite sadness in watching such a beautiful and powerful animal reduced to doing tricks any family dog can do, I didn’t mind so much—but maybe the trainer could have put his head in one of the cats mouths? It felt like something was missing.
The saving grace and most crowd-pleasing part of the show were the elephants, who thanks to their built-in smiles, and large, kind eyes, looked happy to perform a fun act that required them to dip, roll, lay down, and balance their incredible bodies in various ways. The crowd roared—myself included—when they strolled majestically onto the floor to begin the show’s finale. The baby of the bunch even skipped out of the arena—and if it was possible to OD on cuteness, I would have.
With tickets starting at just $15, it’s worth taking the kids, who will no doubt find it entertaining with all the screams, cheers, and laughter. But adults may find themselves bored. We’ve been a bit spoiled with entertainment like Pixar movies, which make kids’ fare entertaining for everyone in the audience regardless of age. However, if you like to see a kid smile, then you’ll find yourself smiling, too.