I’m no basketball booster, and Mayor Buddy Dyer didn’t invite me to flush toilets with him and Dwight Howard. So it took until last week, when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town, for a clown like me to inspect the newly opened Amway Center, aka Orlando’s gold-plated gift to multimillionaire multi-level marketer Rich DeVos.
If the glittering stadium isn’t the most spectacular sports arena I’ve ever been in, then it’s certainly the most thoroughly sponsored. First, you enter the frigid DisneyParks Atrium featuring fiber-optic displays showing the fun you could be having with Mickey. Then it’s up a vertigo-inducing escalator to the Gentleman Jack Terrace, Budweiser Baseline Bar and Nutrilite Magic Fan Experience. And you won’t want to miss the Metro PCS cell phone store on your way out. Even the zebras in the circus were sponsored by Campfire Marshmallows; maybe they feed them s’mores? Note that said corporate support doesn’t subsidize the snacks: You’ll pay $8.50 for a chili cheese dog and $7.50 for a large draft beer.
I’d love to give you a first-person perspective on the heralded club level, which features exclusive bars, gourmet restaurants, private suites and diamond-crusted toilets (I assume). Unfortunately, the club level also features a posse of politely perky bouncer-ettes who smilingly shoved me back in the elevator before I’d barely taken 10 steps into the hotel lobby-like entrance.
Until I upgrade my tax bracket, that’s the closest I’ll come to the luxury level, which takes up nearly a third of the rows and runs all the way around the arena. As a result, the new venue is subjectively smaller than the old, with fewer cheap seats in the upper decks. My lower-level seat had little legroom (even less than in sponsor AirTran’s coach class) and inconveniently kickable floor-level cup holders.
As for the circus itself, this 141st edition of the “The greatest show on earth” is the first produced by Nicole and Alana Feld, the daughters of legendary arena impresario Kenneth Feld. He turned the Feld Entertainment empire’s circus division over to his progeny, who were in Tampa rehearsing the brand-new production in late December. While some of the stunts suffered early-tour sloppiness, overall these fledgling Felds are off to a strong start with a streamlined, swift-moving show that’s as electrifying as its “fully charged” theme suggests.
Following a somewhat lackluster opening production number (hampered by a muddy sound mix and boyishly bland ringmaster), a flow of first-rate feats were presented without any pointless plot to get in the way (unlike 2009’s lame Zing Zang Zoom show). And while I loved the retro stylings of 2010’s FUNundrum, I’m glad that show’s sightline-blocking video screens didn’t return. There also was no mention of Barack, the baby elephant who was treated for a potentially fatal case of herpes shortly after his debut in Orlando last year.
A producer’s first duty is to hire the right people, and the Felds hit a home run with their newest freak-show finds. Dmitry Nadolinkskiy and Ruslan Gilmulin, a pair of mountain-shaped 300-plus-pound strongmen from Uzbekistan, twirl telephone poles like color-guard flags and can balance five acrobats at once on their massive backs; it’s the most amazing manifestation of muscle power I’ve seen since Andre the Giant passed. Other highlights include the Fernandez Brothers and their death-defying giant gerbil wheels; Brian “The Human Fuse” Miser, who is lit on fire and launched by a big crossbow; and a squad of slam-dunking acrobats on spring-loaded stilts.
A producer’s other big job is to make sure individual elements of the show flow smoothly, and this circus succeeds with some of the slickest scene transitions I’ve ever seen. Some credit goes to the troupe of mostly silent clowns, whose clever act-bridging skits – like an elaborate aerial act designed around exchanging an oversized old-fashioned light bulb for an energy-efficient one – support the “fully charged” motif while masking messy set changes.
Even though Ringling has de-emphasized animal acts in recent shows, you couldn’t approach the arena without being assaulted by well-intentioned anti-cruelty activists. Their focus is on supposed elephant abuse, but to my eyes the pachyderms have a pretty sweet gig – they’re treated like rock stars during their brief appearances. It’s the tigers I wish the PETA folks would pay attention to; as a cat owner, I can usually tell when a feline is having fun or getting furious, and I’m fairly certain the big pussies in this show wanted to pulverize trainer Tabayara “Taba” Maluenda. The way his assistants kept poking the recalcitrant performers in the rear, I wouldn’t blame them if they turned him into kitty litter.