‘Circus 1903’ – a different kind of animal

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen.

There’s a new kind of circus coming to town.

The producers of the world’s biggest magic show, “The Illusionists,” have teamed up with the award-winning puppeteers from “War Horse” to present “Circus 1903 — The Golden Age of Circus!,” Its premier tour is about to put down stakes in Manhattan for an April 5 through 16 run at The Theater at Madison Square Garden.

It’s no secret that the traditional spectacle under the big tent has been falling ever more out of favor. Animal-rights activists have long derided these traveling shows’ use of animals in their acts.

And in January, Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, announced that Ringling, the most famous circus of them all, would conclude its nearly 150-year run.

“After much evaluation and deliberation, my family and I have made the difficult business decision that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will hold its final performances in May of this year,” he said in a statement posted to the circus website. “Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”

The time seems ideal, then, for a production such as “Circus 1903,” which describes itself as “a very unique show in that it takes aspects of the traditional circus but puts a fresh, innovative and more humane spin on them.”

The show, a two-hour production designed for all ages, is billed as a “turn-of-the-century spectacular” having “all the thrill and daredevil entertainment one would expect from the circus, with an exciting new twist.”

And it is a real twist, one sure to please animal lovers.

Sophisticated puppetry from London-based Significant Object introduces the largest-ever performing African elephant and her baby into the ring. The state-of-the-art puppets anchor the show, as the storyline follows the mother elephant teaching her calf the “tricks of the trade.”

Puppetry director and puppet co-creator Mervyn Millar, director of Significant Object, says in a behind-the-scenes video, “We’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the ‘War Horse’ puppets, and the sculpture and the art of designing a puppet. It’s about creating something that triggers those… those recognitions in the audience. It’s got to feel like an elephant more than it’s got to look like an elephant.”

And, he continues, the experience offers something more.

“That job of imagining an elephant happens somewhere between the puppeteers onstage and the audience in the auditorium. The first thing you think when you see it is, you say ‘That’s an elephant.’ The second thing you think is it’s a bit magical.”

And that magic continues throughout the production, which is designed as a celebration of performers from around the world, including strong men, contortionists, acrobats, musicians, knife throwers, high-wire daredevils and more.

Simon Painter, Tim Lawson and MagicSpace Entertainment have produced the show. Painter and Lawson have created “Le Grand Cirque,” “Le Noir,” “Cirque Adrenaline” and “The Illusionists,” taking the shows to more than 250 cities around the world, as well as Broadway. They have also presented “A Chorus Line,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Fiddler on the Roof” throughout Australia. MagicSpace Entertainment has been producing and presenting national tours, Broadway shows, concerts and museum exhibits worldwide for more than 35 years, including “The Illusionists — Witness the Impossible.”

“Circus 1903 — The Golden Age of Circus!” has been designed by scenic artist Todd Ivins, with a set taking the audience to an “extraordinary and decadent circus tent.” The first act is set in front of the circus with trucks, props and rigging, while Act 2 features the tent, flagpoles and rigging being raised into the roof of the theater.

Further adding to the period feel are recreations of original turn-of-the-century circus costumes designed by Angela Aaron and a soundtrack — adding the appropriate accents to the thrills and danger — composed by Evan Jolly.

“Circus 1903 — The Golden Age of Circus!” will be in residence April 5-16 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. Show times vary. For more, visit circus1903.com or theateratmsg.com.

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