NEW YORK — At Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center until January 7, Big Apple Circus is surely one of the greatest shows on earth.
Small compared to the recently retired Ringling Brothers’ three-ring presentation, Big Apple Circus is concentrated in a single ring and no audience member is more than 50 feet away from the performers. Its artists and entertainers are all extraordinary, and most of them perform incredible stunts, all according to the universal code of the circus: with the greatest of ease.
The word is that Big Apple Circus combed the world to find its finest acts, combining them in this single company for the 2017 American tour and the 40th New York engagement. The former Big Apple Circus, which filed for bankruptcy two years ago, was a nonprofit company that performed in Damrosch Park for years. Last year, it was bought by BigTop Works, a Florida company headed by Neil Kahanovitz, who was a circus clown before becoming a renowned doctor specializing in spinal disorders. He retired from medicine a few years ago so he could devout himself solely to circus producing.
The entertainment he has assembled is a exciting panoply of tumblers, gymnasts, wire walkers, trapeze artists and trained animals. They are presented in two acts, 16 events, and all of the human performers are talented, well-routined, personable, cheerful and attractive.
They begin and end the circus with a informal parade that brings them all on to bow, smile and applaud the audience, a custom of all circus entertainers. Some are youngsters; others are mature or experienced old-timers.
Once they have made their bows, they rush off and get down to business, presenting one slick turn after another in an unhurried but rapid progression under the eye of ringmaster Tyron “Ty” McFarlin and director Mark Lonergan.
Amazing gymnast Jan Damm takes center stage in Big Apple's first solo scene, “Rola Bola,” and does extraordinary things with a plank of wood balanced on a rolling can — a dizzying and magical feat.
Next, forget yoga: award-winning contortionist Elayne Kramer bends her body into other-worldy shapes. Next is Olympic-level juggler Gamal Tuniziani, followed by his roller-skating brothers Dandino and Luciana, who make moves on wheels that you have never seen at your local indoor skating rink.
Jenny Vidbel brings on the show’s first live animal act six black and white ponies in formation, doing wondrous things in a small space. Then, she dismisses them and presents four elegant, full-size show horses who prance about. For an encore, the ponies and show horses perform in formation together.
Ms. Vidbel tops herself in the second act with a band of dogs, some of them little, some of them huge, and all rescue dog. The pups turn somersaults like acrobats then engage in games in a kind of helter-skelter canine comedy. All are twice as funny as human beings can be — and you know how funny human beings are.
The first act ends with the Flying Tunizianis troupe, with its amazing aerial acts of multi-person passing, swinging and swaying with only their art and the air to protect them. The daring quadruple finale, a somersault, will take your breath away.
Mr. Kahanovitz has kept an act from the old Big Apple Circus, Grandma (played by Barry Lubin), and his sidekick Mr. Joel. Grandma threads through the evening with predictable and comic clown routines that, by the second half, had worn me out. The audience, though, old and young, seemed to get a continuous kick out of the shenanigans.
The finale is another hold-your-breath encounter, this one with the Fabulous Wallendas, led by the legendary Nik Wallenda. Nik Wallenda is a seventh-generation circus performer. He began at age 2, learning to walk the wire while holding his mother’s hand. His wife Erendrina Wallenda must have an iron jaw; she hangs by her teeth in a bicycle-wire act that she performed during the summer 300 feet above Niagara Falls.
The Wallendas’ is a theatrical boffo, a seven-person bicycle pyramid on the high wire. The audience is asked to keep silent so the performers will not get distracted. (In 1962, two of Nik's uncles were killed and another paralized doing this feat). The performance by the Fabulous Wallendas is more dramatic than half the plays on or off Broadway.
Big Apple Circus also has a superb band and bright, colorful costumes by Amy Clark, attractive sets by Anita LaScala and Rob Bessinger, and brilliant lighting design by Jeff Croiter.
Tickets for The Big Apple Circus start at a low as $35; VIP seats are $150. No matter where you sit, you will have a great time with this exhilarating theater experience under a tent.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.