We had mixed feelings about it, but last night we went with some friends to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Staples Center to see their new show “Over the Top.”
Mainly, I was concerned about giving my daughters a lifetime of nightmares from the clowns, which I found creepy and most un-funny when I was little. Also, I was wondering how I’d feel about the performing wild animals.
But we decided that the circus is a valuable cultural experience, so we coughed up the ticket price (and the convenience charges) and went.
As it turned out, we had to cross a PETA picket line to get in, and I felt terrible. One of the PETA activists gave Dinah and Djuna some stickers that read: “I’m an ele-friend. Circuses are no fun for animals.” My daughters said, “Oh, thank you!” and wore the stickers into the show.
My friends, the circus is not what it used to be. A bag of cotton candy is $12, a box of popcorn is $7 (and, uh, parking was $20). The toys and souvenirs didn’t really inspire my 4-year-old daughters, and if you can’t inspire a couple of eager 4-year-olds to want a circus souvenir, something is wrong. There were no peanuts or any cool circus candy (except for all-day suckers they sold when you were leaving at 10 p.m.) We did buy the girls a little stuffed toy, but the biggest hit the morning after was actually the most economical thing we got — coloring books for 4 bucks.
Moreover, the show is not the Greatest Show on Earth, as it is billed. Overall, it was a satisfactory presentation. Pretty good, but not great. Maybe I am just hankering for my childhood, when my grandparents took my sister and I to an old fashioned circus where everyone walked to the big top, which sat out in the middle of a big grassy field. I remember circus treats and circus smells and all the wonkiness of people working hard to entertain you in the dead heat of summer, with those fat, lazy Maine mosquitoes hunkering everywhere in the humidity. Now, THAT’S a circus.
First of all, last night’s ringmaster’s script was dull, with a running gag where the clowns kept stealing the guy’s hat, you know, the ringmaster’s hat that makes HIM the ringmaster because of its symbolic significance. It didn’t feel like there was enough of the traditional ringmaster banter, like “Laaa-deees and gennnntlemen, IN the center ring, witness the death-defying feats of the one-and-only Spaaaaa-deee-neeee!” There was some of it, but not enough to make it feel like a real circus. By the end of the show, I wanted to steal his hat too.
I was also not a fan of the quasi S & M section, where the dancers had bike handles coming out of their costumes at the hips. Call me a prude, but that was just plain odd.
I really liked the trained dogs and the pretty white ponies with purple feathers on their heads — seeing domesticated animals perform was actually fun. These animals appeared healthy and happy, especially the dogs. The dogs had these gleaming coats and engaged in a joyful performance where they ran at breakneck speed through an obstacle course and caught Frisbees. But watching wild animals perform — like a tiger jumping on its hind legs or an elephant laying on its side — was just icky and weird.
The traditional acts, like the high flying acts, were pretty good. Also, there was a neat act where the acrobats jumped and did tricks on these giant inner-tube things that were turned on their sides.
But the real hit of the show, we all thought, was Tom Doughtery, the lead clown. He was excellent! I honestly have never really seen a clown I liked, but I found myself genuinely laughing at his antics. My daughters loved him too and talked about him all the way home. They understood his gags and his storylines. I was pleasantly surprised.
The finale of the show was pretty, with black lights and huge fluorescent flowers.
The best moment, though, was not even in the show. When clown Tom’s toupee flew off during a gag, revealing his bald head, my electrified daughter Dinah shrieked across the aisle at top volume: “MAMA! Clown Tom is bald JUST LIKE YOU ARE!”
We all laughed so hard that our own toupees flew off. Coming to the circus was a good idea after all.