Big Top wonder is at the heart of ‘Circus 1903’

"Circus 1903" harkens back to the turn-of-the-century circuses that traveled across the country with a variety of acts, including one by a tightrope troupe. | MARK TURNER PHOTO

If ever there was a bygone era, the world of the classic circus would surely fill the bill.

With the announcement earlier this year that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was ending its 146-year run, there was a collective sigh heard ’round the world from circus fans, those “children of all ages” who once grew wide-eyed with excitement with news of the impending arrival of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

‘Circus 1903 — The Golden Age of Circus’
When: March 21-26
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets, $16-$80
Info: broadwayinchicago.com

No, not the high-tech arena extravaganza of recent years, but the circus — that three-ring traveling tent city that brought hundreds (at one time thousands) of entertainers right to a city’s center, or the outskirts of town, promising everything from exotic animals (when it was still politically correct to include them) to the most daredevil of artists, some extremely athletic and talented, some just, well, extreme.

The “elephants” have returned to the Big Top, courtesy of “Circus 1903” and puppet wizardry of Mervyn Millar. | MARK TURNER PHOTO

And while other forms of circus artistry have evolved, most notably the ultra-chic Cirque du Soleil, there is still something to be said of a good old-fashioned flying trapeze, tightrope bicyclist, carload of clowns or someone juggling fiery torches.

Enter “Circus 1903 — The Golden Age of Circus,” running March 21-26 at the Oriental Theatre. Not a Big Top tent in sight (though the illusion of one sets the tone for the production), but there are some of the classic acts of that Golden Age. And there are “animals” — specifically elephants, two glorious lifesize beauties, thanks to the puppetry of Mervyn Millar (his work was featured in the Tony Award-winning “War Horse) and the Significant Object company.

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“Our mother elephant is called Queenie, and her calf is called Karanga, which is Swahili for ‘peanut,’ ” said Millar. The mom is to scale (over 10 feet tall), the real size of a large African elephant, Millar revealed. “The largest ever measured, the famous Jumbo, who also came from London to travel the world, was a bull measuring four meters  [13 feet] at the shoulder. So [Queenie is] pretty substantial.”

The elephants are made with an internal frame of aluminum for lightness and strength, according to Millar, and the four puppeteers inside Queenie and the one inside Peanut are strapped into the frames with harnesses. It is a choreographed ballet they have perfected, to make the animals move as effortlessly their real-life counterparts.

“We wanted to create a nod to the generation of performers who went before us, who made the circus what it was,” said “Circus 1903” director Neil Dorward, whose other productions include “The Illusionists” and “Cirque Le Noir.” “The show is set around 1903 because that was the year when the most circus menageries were touring America. There were small ones, large ones, some traveled by train, some by coach and horse.

“It was a very huge industry because most towns didn’t have much when it came to entertainment choices. So this circus would roll into town and it was like the Olympics and the movies all rolled into one fantastic show.”

The first act of “Circus 1903” revolves around the arrival of the circus, the rigging of the tent and the introduction of the various performers — a backstage look at their world. Act 2 presents a traditional circus, with a variety of acts from a contortionist to a juggler, from a trapeze act to a teeterboard troupe.

“People would dream of running away with the circus,” Dorward said. “They’d see the aerialists and dream of one day being able to ‘fly’ like that. Circus sparked the imaginations of young and old, and for a few hours, the audience could escape their daily lives into this magical place. It sounds corny but it was true. A hundred years ago, live animals were among the biggest draw for a circus because people had never seen an elephant, tiger or lion up-close. And then there was the parade through town from the rail yards for the bigger circuses like Ringling Bros.”

The circus was more than a spectacle; it was an event. And Doward hopes the stage production captures that exuberance. “We have amassed some of the best circus performers in the world, some of whom come from generations of circus artists,” he said. “What you’re seeing is pure human skill and talent, and that truly touches the audience. You can’t help but be swept away.”

“Circus 1903” features a classic balancing act, once a staple of nearly every circus that traveled the country. | MARK TURNER PHOTO

Previously from Entertainment