Since we're spotlighting the Upper West Side this month, it seems like the perfect time to post about one of the neighborhood's favorite family events: the annual show by the Big Apple Circus. Every fall, the homegrown troupe hits Lincoln Center to debut its latest spectacle. I've been going ever since my mother took me to the very first show 34 years ago (yes, seeing this circus always makes me feel old).
There's a bittersweet undertone to this year's show, Dream Big: After 25 years, the Big Apple Circus' mischievous clown Grandma, played by Barry Lubin, is leaving. It's hard for me to imagine the circus going on without him (although it most certainly will). If your family loves Grandma as much as mine, make sure you don't miss her swan song in this fun family production.
Even though the title is Dream Big, this show felt smaller than usual, more intimate and less jam-packed. There's a loose plot too, which is unusual for the Big Apple Circus. I don't want to give too much away, let's just say kids will enjoy seeing one of their peers show off in the ring. (Cheesy as it is, I was moved by this storyline although I definitely heard some adults around me, including my husband, groaning.)
Of course the story's not the main attraction here. The Big Apple Circus is always about the acts, and there are some amazing ones this year. The Shandong Acrobats open and close Act I, and they're incredible (if not perfect. Hey, you can't successfully defy gravity every time). Their first routine was a doozy: Bet you've never seen a human pyramid jump rope before. Their second bit was an offbeat tumbling act: They tossed each other through the air as if they were balls.
Speaking of balls, I really loved the juggler, Dmitry Chernov. His black-and-silver getup made him look like some kind of alien, and he had deep pockets that he used to catch the balls. I've watched a lot of jugglers in my time but I've never seen anything like that.
Jenny Vidbel's animal act was also a huge hit. Yes, her galloping horses are majestic and her trained dogs are adorable but it was the more exotic members of her menagerie, including a porcupine and a capybara (look it up), that got the biggest reaction, even if they really didn't do much beyond show up.
I usually find aerial acts kind of boring—I just feel like I've seen all of the feats before. But Anna Volodko's rope routine was so fast-paced and (dare I say) sexy, it held our interest. Hand balancer Melanie Chy was awesome; somehow she held her poses without breaking a sweat. And returning troupe the Flying Cortes make for a great finale, despite that elusive triple flip (I think I've seen that work once in my entire life, and I go to a lot of circuses).
There were parts I didn't care for. Ringmistress Jenna Robinson seemed a little weak, especially when she sang, and I didn't think Scott & Muriel's intentionally inept magic/clowning was that funny (although my daughter and all the kids in the audience were howling, so maybe I'm just an old grump).
For me, Grandma is still the heart, soul and wit of the show. She resurrected one of her signature bits, "Sunshine and Showers," which involves spitting water (good luck getting your kids not to try that at home), and she just laughed and played and joked around, even at intermission when she was surrounded by her adoring young fans. (Look for her in the audience. She always comes out and says hello and poses for photos before the start of Act II.) Her spirit is what the Big Apple Circus is all about, and she will definitely be missed.
Big Apple Circus: Dream Big is playing in Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park through January 8, 2012. Tickets are $15-$95, children under 3 are free if they sit on an adult's lap. Find ticket discount codes on BroadwayBox.com.
Photos courtesy of Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus