Under the Big Top, on a grand stage

“Now, do you believe in magic?” A simple question from Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade, asked to a 5-year-old audience participant, but really, directed at the entirety of the Oriental Theatre Tuesday night for the press opening of Circus 1903. By the curtain call of the Golden Era-esque extravaganza, you’d be hard-pressed to find any patrons, big or small, who didn’t answer in the affirmative.

If you go

Runs through Sunday, March 26, 2017

Oriental Theatre

24 W. Randolph St., Chicago


Produced by Simon Painter, Tim Lawson and MagicSpace Entertainment (folks who’ve brought us such spectaculars as The Illusionists tour), Circus 1903 aims to recreate the glitz, glamour and sheer excitement of turn-of-the-century circus troupes arriving in a town and hoisting the Big Top. And boy, do they deliver during this lightning-fast run in Chicago. From David Williamson’s ‘Ringmaster’ announcing the revelry (and flinging more than a few popcorn kernels), to the acrobatics which ensue amidst hammering tent stakes, it’s soon quite obvious that this isn’t your typical Broadway in Chicago show. (Once the audience came to terms with the realization that polite theater applause doesn’t exactly do it for the ovation-worthy circus acts, happy mediums were found between rhythmic clapping and outright cheering.)

Act One is a frenzy of pre-show preparations in front of the tent; we’re treated to warm-ups, behind-the-scenes rehearsals and audience participation unlike any other. Act Two begins with the raised tent and the opening sequence of the circus itself. By the time renowned aerialist Lucky Moon (Elena Gatilova) takes the stage, spinning and soaring among the rafters, it’s exceedingly evident that these performers are indeed international circus professionals at the height of their craft. Some deal in elegance, some in charm, but all exude the immediacy of very live, very difficult theater. On Tuesday, a sweet moment occurred when juggler The Great Gaston (Francois Borie) dropped the seventh of his bowling pins; in an instant, he hopped down into the seats, lights came up, and he perched on the lap of a woman he later proclaimed to be “My Mama” for a brief hug before returning to finish a triumphant act. A slightly more alarming incident with The Fratelli Rossi (Alejandro and Ricardo Rossi) involved a balancing flip mishap, causing the house lights to come up, and which ultimately resulted in a signal for “do-over,” an absolutely bonkers amount of cheering from the crowd and a dizzying number of successful flips.

Circus 1903 isn’t big on narrative, aside from Williamson’s introductions of each performer and whimsical interludes of magic; a complex story isn’t needed in the slightest. There is no weak act among the bunch, and together they create an absolutely thrilling experience. We were sold before the appearance of the elephants–but oh, the elephants. Award-winning puppeteers and model-makers who brought us War Horse at the National Theatre have given life to a mama and her baby who, from what I could see, are fashioned from burlap, wires and sheer magic.

I won’t ruin any more of the jaw-dropping stunts or stage beauty (except to say that the finale featuring Los Lopez on the tightrope will have you clutching hands with your seat partner like some old-timey cartoon character), but I will tell you this much: after the final bow has been taken and you’ve made your way home, Ringmaster Whipsnade’s question will remain in your mind: “Now, do you believe in magic?”

You absolutely will.

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