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Your 'Show' of shows returns

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus - the Greatest Show on Earth - makes visits with its popularity intact.

By MARTY CLEAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 2, 2003


TAMPA -- With opening night just a few days off, director Philip McKinley was exasperated. The performers in the show's spectacular, pyrotechnic-driven finale were a little out of synch.

"Come on!" he screamed into his microphone. "That wasn't even close!"

The performers stared blankly until a woman standing at McKinley's side translated his rebuke into Chinese.

At other points in the rehearsal process, his instructions would have to be translated into Portuguese, Spanish and Hungarian.

McKinley is directing the 133rd edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which makes its debut tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. Besides many returning performers, the show features plenty of talent never seen in this country.

Is this the Greatest Show on Earth of years ago? Yes and no.

"It's changed because tastes have changed, and it's changed because of the way society has changed," said Tim Holst, the vice president of talent and production for the circus. "We've changed because we've raised a new generation that's accustomed to clicking a button to get entertainment. So it's streamlined. The length, pace, lighting and pyrotechnics of it have changed. But the earthiness of the circus still remains."

Something else that remains, Holst said, is the popularity of the circus. Despite TV, video games, computers, families still flock to the Greatest Show on Earth.

"It's like the granddaddy of live entertainment," Holst said. "There are no camera angles, there are no second takes."

Even competition from Cirque du Soleil and other troupes that incorporate circus acts haven't seemed to hurt Ringling Bros.

"There's no question that Cirque du Soleil has had a major influence on many different levels and in many different ways," Holst said. "But we have been in cities when they were there at the same time and we've both done very well."

One reason the two can co-exist, he said, is a difference in demographic appeal. Cirque du Soleil tends to attract a young adult and middle-aged crowd, but Ringling Bros. appeals to everyone from young children who have never seen a circus to grandparents who appreciate the nostalgic elements. In between are parents who rediscover the circus through their children.

Ringling Bros. puts together a new show from scratch every year.

Because the show is rehearsed at the circus' winter home at the Florida State Fairgrounds, bay area audiences always get to see the premiere.

Among the highlights this year will be the return of Bello, whom Time magazine has called the world's greatest clown, and something called Bailey's Comet. Holst is obstinately tight-lipped about what, exactly, Bailey's Comet is.

"You'll only see it here," he said. "It's so real you can feel the heat. After the circus, you'll be saying, 'I just saw Bailey's Comet and Bello."'

Holst advises families to come early. For children, some of the most exciting moments come before the show begins.

An Animal Open House starts 90 minutes before show time and offers a look at how the circus cares for its animals. Then about an hour before the show, children can meet many of the circus performers and get treated to some up-close circus stunts. Kids can even try on clown costumes from previous years' shows.

PREVIEW

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, today through Sunday, St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, and Jan. 8-12, Times Arena at Bayfront Center, St. Petersburg. Tickets $12-$28. Call Ticketmaster (813) 287-8844 or (727) 898-2100 or the venue box offices.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.