Ringling Bros. may have packed it in. But the Big Top has not come down.
“Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus” — which comes to Detroit’s Fisher Theatre for a six-day run this week — not only re-creates the vintage circus experience on stage but gives it a contemporary theatrical twist. Combining the daring sensibility of Cirque du Soleil with the staging twists of “The Lion King” and “War Horse,” “Circus 1903” is designed for children of all ages and, as the disclaimer goes, with no animals harmed in the process.
“It’s like the end of one era and, I think, the beginning of a new one,” “Circus 1903” producer Lee Marshall of Magic Space Entertainment says by phone from his home in Park City, Utah. “We’ve got some of the best individual circus acts and they do things in a proscenium theater that people are accustomed to seeing far away in an arena. Now they’re right on top of the actual acts, where you can really see how talented these performers are.”
Staged in two acts with a script that takes patrons behind the scenes, “Circus 1903” has a lineup with contortionists, a bicyclist, high-wire and trapeze acts, a strong man, acrobats and jugglers — “A lot of acts you’d normally see in the circus,” Marshall notes. There are no clowns, but the producer promises that Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade, a magician by trade, “is a very funny man and wildly entraining.”
“He’s the glue that holds the whole show together and is very interactive — especially with the children.”
The stars of the show, however, are elephants, which ceased to be part of Ringling Bros. and other circuses following animal rights protests years ago. “Circus 1903’s” family of life-size pachyderms aren’t real, however. They’re puppets made by the same team that created moving models for the stage adaptation of “War Horse,” and while Marshall is quick to note the show “is not all about our elephants,” it provides a unique selling point for the production.
“Our audience is completely enthralled with the elephants,” Marshall acknowledges. “They’re elegant. They’re gorgeous. They’re magical. They almost float on stage. The little one’s super playful, like a kid. They’re not the whole show, but they’re a wonderful part of the whole show.”
“Circus 1903” came to Marshall and Magic Space about three years ago, after the company took the magic revue “The Illusionists” on the road in North America. That show’s creator, Simon Painter, had conceived the idea of “a cirque magic show,” and Marshall and company were quick to embrace and execute the idea.
“It’s a quaint show, but it’s beautiful and lit like today,” Marshall says. “The sets are gorgeous and it rivals the production value of a Cirque du Soleil show — but is completely different. It’s really very charming.”
Like any circus, “Circus 1903” will be fluid. New and different acts will likely come out of the lineup, and more puppet animals may become part of the show as it evolves.
“There definitely have been conversations about that,” Marshall says, “but it doesn’t need to be about all animals. It doesn’t need to be a ‘Lion King,’ with menageries of various animals. But could we use one or two more? Sure.
“It’s a very unique piece of theatrical family entertainment, and we want to keep it fresh so that people will come back and see it again and again — just like the circus.”
If You Go:
• “Circus 1903” runs March 14-19 at The Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $35-$98. Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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