Ringling Bros &

           Barnum & Bailey

                  Out of This World'  2016

                         by Dan Zeff

Rosemont – The Ringling Brothers circus is back in Chicagoland for its annual visit, and veteran patrons of the Greatest Show on Earth will notice some notable changes. Gone are the elephants and the sawdust and tinsel character that was a part of the circus image for generations. The 2016 edition, labeled “Out of This World,” assumes a space travel Buck Rogers theme. But circus traditionalists need not despair. Ringling Brothers still provides the customary abundance of familiar top quality acts from around the world, 105 performers from 23 countries.

As usual, the circus is playing a split run, starting at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont and then moving to the United Center in Chicago.

This year’s circus wraps itself in a storyline, what the circus program breathlessly describes as “an intergalactic adventure of good versus evil, as (the good guys) travel to planets of fire, sand, water and ice.” Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson and his diminutive sidekick Paolo travel the universe searching for the galaxy’s greatest performers. Their adversary is the evil Queen Tatiana, a kind of Cruella for the space age. Thanks to the arena’s low fidelity acoustics I couldn’t follow much of the narration and frankly I couldn’t have cared less. The narrative is filled with the usual overheated circus blarney and absorbing every word is not essential to enjoying the show.

The absence of the elephants means we are denied the spectacle of masses of young ladies wearing brief costumes and frozen smiles riding the beasts or leading them around the arena. There is a parade of all the artists but it comes after the first two acts and gets lost in the general commotion. The show’s spectacle resides primarily in projections and light shows. They are impressive in a New Age sense for those who like that sort of thing.

The centerpiece of the first act is animal trainer Alexander Lacey and his lions and tigers and one leopard. As in shows past, we watch the feat of the trainer getting these dangerous animals to roll over in unison and mount their metal perches on command. It’s a long segment and has never been one of my favorite circus bits but what Lacey and his creatures do, they do well.

The circus may be bereft of elephants but the rest of the animal kingdom is well represented. There are kangaroos, pigs, llamas, alpacas, goats, and a pair of miniature donkeys. They don’t do much in the way of performing, but they are fun to look act. The best of the animal acts draw upon dogs and horses rather than exotics. There are 19 dogs of assorted sizes scurrying around the arena floor, doing trick after trick in double time and apparently enjoying themselves as much as the crowd enjoys watching them.

For the mixture of grace and high risk, the Cossack trick riders top the show. The men and women dash around the riding area at speed of 25 miles an hour and up, balancing in pyramids and scooping up scarves from the floor while hanging by an ankle. In one bit, a young lady suspends herself spread eagled on the shoulders of two riders galloping in parallel formation around the circle. If the horses separate by as much as a few additional inches from each other, the lady is in big trouble.

There are numerous acts we have seen in the past. The King Charles Troupe is back, a collection of young men on unicycles who frantically recreate a basketball drill Harlem Globetrotters style. There is a variation of the balancing act in which the circus artists keep their footing on a slowly rotating giant pendulum. A troupe of Chinese acrobats jump from trampolines through stacks of metal hoops. The trapeze artists had a tough night at my performance, ending up in the safety net with frequency. But they did execute a dazzling ensemble synchronized exchange that was the Gee Whiz moment of the evening.

An act that always brings gasps is the “meteoric motorcycles” that race around the inside of a metal-mesh globe, missing each other by millimeters. This version has eight cyclists rotating around the globe interior simultaneously at breathtaking speeds. The margin for error is zero.

Some things about the circus never change. The concessions still operate full tilt, offering food, drinks, and souvenirs nonstop, giving the circus experience that delightful huckster quality. The clowns, as always, are unfunny. The lead clown is a man named Davis who is Tatiana’s chief minion and a deft man on a trampoline or a high wire. But funny? I don’t think so. The nine-member band played continuously in exuberant style. Special props go to the four iron-lipped horn players.

The 2016 circus seems to have fewer acts that lasted longer. For nearly all the show, only one ring is employed. The performance lasts just a bit more than two hours including an intermission, just about right for a child’s attention span. The absence of elephants didn’t seem to keep away the spectators away on opening night. A near capacity crowd packed the giant Allstate Arena, the largest audience I can recall in more than three decades of circus attendance. The younger viewers may never see elephants in a circus again, but Ringling Brothers did survive the elimination of the menagerie years ago. Times and tastes change, but the Greatest Show on Earth still remains pretty great.

The Ringling Brothers circus is playing at the Allstate Arena through November 13 and then transfers to the United Center from November 17 to 27. Tickets start at $15. Show times vary. For information call 800 745 3000 or visit

     The show gets a rating of 3 stars.           November 2016


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