Big Apple returns, bringing regards from Broadway, circuses of yore

Hurry, hurry, hurry, step right up …

After a two-year absence, Big Apple Circus returns to Atlanta starting Feb. 1, and, in two weeks, it will be joined in the metro area by worthy competitors Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and UniverSoul.

Though it has hardly felt balmy ‘round these parts lately, the trio of very distinct circuses likes to route national tours though the sunny South in winter.

News of the return of New York-based Big Apple, which is setting up its big top outside Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park for the first time, was greeted warmly by metro Atlanta fans who appreciate the intimate, one-ring experience. Big Apple emphasizes human scale and feats and feels a bit old world, especially in contrast to Ringling’s super-sized, sparkly spectacle.

“Between transportation costs and overall tickets sales during the recession, we were forced to stay away,” Big Apple spokesman Joel Dein explained, adding, “Atlanta is one of our favorite destinations.”

“Legendarium,” its all-new show that will be presented 27 times though Feb. 18, is a valentine to the roots of circusing in America, and specifically to New York, where the production received glowing reviews from the city’s typically tough critics during its recent stop outside Lincoln Center.

The New York Times called Big Apple, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary, “consistently inspired” and said “Legendarium” “isn’t about to break that long, superb streak.”

In his first tour with the troupe, John Kennedy Kane, who’s making something of a comeback himself as “Legendarium’s” barrel-chested, mutton-chopped, large-and-in-charge ringmaster, says you don’t have to have ever worn an “I (Heart) New York” T-shirt to enjoy this Gotham-centric edition of Big Apple. But it doesn’t hurt either.

The 51-year-old joined the circus at 18 and was quickly transformed into the fire-eating Kanen the Human Volcano — the start of a colorful three-decade career in which he’s played a variety of roles in 15 eternally touring American and Canadian shows, many now defunct. With a nickname of “Circ,” he thought he’d seen and done everything involving greasepaint, but asserted in an interview from his home in Buffalo, N.Y., that Big Apple is a circus apart.

“My family and friends, who are not circus (people), all said the same thing after seeing Big Apple in New York: They’ve never experienced a circus like that. Because it is a Broadway show, it is very theatrical. And the big thing is, it’s so intimate. Literally the people sit around the ring. No seat is more than 50 feet away. You cannot help but be part of the show … because it’s happening all around you.”

In fact, “Legendarium’s” director, West Hyler, himself a Big Apple newcomer, is a Broadway veteran, having served as associate director for “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Jersey Boys.”

For this circus about circusing, he was seeking a ringmaster who could announce a history-laden script without sounding like, well, an announcer.

He cast Kane after watching a DVD of a one-man show about his crazy life in small circuses that the ringmaster wrote while holed up in Buffalo due to health issues — his own and the slowly drying up “mud shows,” as he calls them.

Kane’s “My Life in the Basement,” which he performed in Buffalo a handful of times, is filled with Catskills-worthy lines in need of a final rimshot.

For instance: “I come from a family of politicians and car salesmen. Me joining the circus actually helped our image in the neighborhood.”

Ba-da-Dum!

Even without rimshots, Kane is glad to be working a prestige gig at this late date in his career. “So this play I wrote because I had no circus work got me back into the circus, performing in New York,” he said, savoring the irony.

And though he doesn’t look down his nose at any gig, he shed no tears that he was unavailable over the holidays to play Kandy Kane at the Hamburg (N.Y.) Fairgrounds’ Festival of Lights, a role he performed for seven years and that the Buffalo News dubbed in a headline “Elf with an Attitude.”

“It’s spelled with K’s,” Kane said with a chuckle. “I think a lot of people thought they were going to see a stripper.”

That’s the kind of humor “Legendarium” director Hyler was looking for. “Always during rehearsals, he’d say, ‘Act like you’re doing your one-man show, just talk to us, don’t announce,’” Kane recounted. “I’m welcoming you into our living room, and this is all part of the intimacy. People who know me, performers from other circuses, kid me: ‘You’re getting away with murder, you’re not announcing!’”

But the non-announcer said “Legendarium’s” acts are all the real deal — from the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe, an all-female Chinese ensemble that performs perilous synchronization on bicycles, to the Russian act Desire of Flight, which risks life and limb on aerial straps without wires or a net.

“There’s no theme being shoved down your throat — you know, ‘The Circus From Outer Space!’” he said. “It’s just pure circus.”

Kane’s job is to knit the artistry with the circus history without it sounding like a school lecture. He’s got a script, but Big Apple allows him to ad-lib and only occasionally has reined him in so far.

“I got in trouble for this line: ‘What’s the difference between the three-ring and the one-ring? With the one-ring circus, I can see everyone texting,’” Kane recounted.

“And (Big Apple show runners) were like, ‘Don’t let it bother you, John, that’s the way it is today.’”

Has he busted any of the audience members whose faces are distractingly lit up by their mobile devices when the tent is in a blackout and he’s in the spotlight?

“I choose my battles,” Kane said. “But there are many entrances and exits though the audience, and I’ll just tap someone on the shoulder (and say), ‘It’s showtime!’

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