Circuses are inherently theatrical. Performers adopt larger than life persona in order to entertain. They clown. They make you laugh. They make you cry. They are theatrical, yes. But are they theatre?
That, perhaps, is the question you find you asking yourself after you see the current production, El Grande Circus de Coca Cola at The Colony Theatre (FB) in Burbank. To me, well, I haven’t seen such inspired lunacy in Burbank since, well, January 2014 when Moonie and Broon were at the Colony. But for others…
El Grande Circus de Coca Cola is, in a sense, a continuation of the story started in El Grande de Coca Cola (which I mean to see when it was at the Ruskin Group Theatre (FB), but (alas) didn’t). The original tells the story of Senor Don Pepe Hernandez, has announced in the local newspaper in that he is going to bring international cabaret to Trujillo. Eventually he succeeds, and we see the cabaret within the cabaret as it unfolds, with all of mistakes — the conjuring tricks that don’t work, the people that trip up, a blind American folk singer who falls off the stage, colliding chorus girls, etc.
El Grande Circus continues the adventures as this troupe sneaks across the border, first to Hollywood, and thence to the Hollywood-adjacent Burbank. The 85-minute, one-act show is a circus performance by Don Pepe (Marcelo Tubert (FB)) and his family: Miguel (Paul Baird (FB)), Maria (Olivia Cristina Delgado (FB)), Consuelo (Lila Dupree (FB)), and Juan (Jesse D. Myers (FB), who replaced Aaron Miller). The picture to the right shows the original cast (all but the Juan we saw, but he’s the Juan that I want (sorry, couldn’t resist)) at the Skylight (FB), but the production was essentially the same at the Colony).
The show itself consists of circus acts and performances. I was going to say “improvised circus acts”, but this is really more choreographed inspiration, for it takes quite a bit of rehearsal and choreography to make what these folks do on stage come across as improvised. But there is clearly an element of improvisation underlying all of this, for some percentage of the act is playing off the audience, and I get a sense that it changes at every performance. But to give you a sense of what happens in this show, here are some of the scenes we saw:
- Bolshoi Ballet Radioactivo
- An insanely choreography family picture.
- A flea circus
- Ariel Acrobat mishaps
- A palm-reader act
The entire show is narrated by Tubert’s Pepe Hernandez in a mixture of Spanish and Spanglish. It is understandable to those who do not understand Spanish, but it does takes some work. The show does operate at two levels, which jokes that children will get, and many that have double implications of a more adult nature. The performances are uniformly strong, with Delgado and Dupree out in the audience before the show, playing their characters and flirting with the audience members (especially those producers from over the hill in Hollywood).
The show is inspired; it is indeed a three-ring circus in a low-budget single ring. It is theatrical. But is it theatre?
This, ultimately, is the problem with the show. Artistic director Barbara Beckley works to manage expectations before the show, noting how the originally-scheduled production, Humble Boy, had been in the planning stages for over a year, starting when the theatre was in a strong financial condition. That condition weakened over the year and the costs for Humble Boy proved too high, and so the show needed to be replaced. Barbara found El Grande Circus at the Skylight (FB) in Los Feliz (Hollywood), where it had been getting rave reviews. Moving the show provided the ability to bring an established “hit” to a larger theatre without a lot of expense for dramaturgy, set design, rehearsal, etc. This aspect of the story has been downplayed a bit: the #pro99 community likes to point to El Grande Circus as a shining example of 99-seat moving to paid contracts, but that’s not the reason the show is there. In any case, Barbara lets the regulars know this is a show that was brought in to serve a purpose, and that some subscribers love it, and some hate it.
We enjoyed the show, but we’re odd ducklings of the old theatre audience. The show certainly does not fit the notion of conventional theatre. There really is no character growth. There is no storyline. There is no protagonist or antagonist. There is inspired humor, choreographed improvisation. It is unconventional theatre. We saw audience members around us cracking up in laughter. We saw others totally confused as to what we saw. We also saw loads of younger people in the audience.
The show was enjoyable and fun, and we had a blast seeing it. But was the Colony right in bringing it to their stage? For that question, I’m not sure the answer is “yes”. I think that many of their older subscribers (for, alas, Colony does have an older subscription base) will walk away confused, disappointed that this wasn’t the theatre they were expecting. The younger families and their kids have the other problem — they may love this, and it may make them want to come back to the Colony to see more shows — where they will be disappointed as the Colony returns to its traditional shows, such as the Frank Loesser tuner that is up next. A small percentage of their audience will appreciate why Barbara brought this in, and will be open to the wide variety that theatre can encompass — and will enjoy this for what it is.
Luckily, we’re in that small percentage. We enjoyed Tubert’s Pepe, with his mangled English and Spanish, with his air of sanity in a sane world. We enjoyed the sexy Delgado’s Maria and Dupress’s Consuela: from their flirting with the audience to their performances onstage. We enjoyed Baird’s Miguel and Myers’ Juan (especially in the Ballet scene).
Alan Shearman‘s direction keeps the show moving along, although there were a few points where I wondered how close we were to the end. He did a good job of creating the El Grande characters and personas, and helping the actors inhabit those personas. In a show such as this, that’s really critical, for there is no story to provide the motivation or direction.
On the production side, this was a combination of the normal Colony quality and the elements that made it a success in the much smaller and lower-budget Skylight. The scenic design by John Iacovelli (FB) was simple but effective: big top draping and art that created the image of a worn circus facility. This combined with the properties by Jeff Faeth (FB) to establish the lunacy (such as in the magic act scene, or the aforementioned flea circus). Adding to this were the costumes by Sarah Figoten (FB), which were just… inspired. I particularly enjoyed the adapability of the ladies costumes, as well as the male costumes during the ballet scene. The sound design by Jeff Gardner (FB) worked well, although there were points where there was significant background noise — I don’t know if that was intentional, or someone backstage forgot to turn off their microphone. Jennifer Edwards (FB)’s lighting was effective — particularly the use of the LED lights — in establishing the mood of the situation. Although the show appears improvised, what holds it together is the choreography of Tor Campbell (FB) — nowhere is this more apparent than in the slow-motion replay of the family picture, the Bolshoi Ballet number, or in the voodoo scene. The remaining main production credits are: Christopher Hoffman (FB) [Production Coordinator], Garrett Longley (FB) [Production Stage Manager], Paul Ruddy (FB) [Casting Director]; Rachel Berney Needleman (FB) [Associate Producer]; Gary Grossman (FB) [Producer]. These are all Skylight folks — making clear how this was a production of the Skylight Theatre Company (FB) and Flying Cucumber Productions.
El Grande Circus de Coca Cola continues at The Colony Theatre (FB) through December 13. Tickets are available through the Colony website; discount tickets are available through Goldstar. I found the show very funny, but if you’re looking for a traditional theatrical book-based show, this might not be to your taste.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: This week I become a producer, when we present The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam as the dinner entertainment at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). The weekend after the conference sees us at the NoHo Arts Center (FB) for Theatre 68 (FB)’s production of Who Killed Santa?, which sounded so warped as to be either extremely funny or extremely stupid– should be fun to watch! The third weekend of December brings the touring company of “If/Then” at the Pantages (FB). The last weekend of December has “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and Nunsense at Crown City Theatre (FB). I’m just starting to plan 2016 — I’ve been waiting on the Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) schedule. So far, January shows “Bullets Over Broadway” at the Pantages (FB) on January 9; “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on January 24; and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There is also a “hold” (i.e., dates blocked, but awaiting ticketing) for “Louis and Keeley – Live at the Sahara” at The Geffen Playhouse (FB) for either January 2 or 16 (pending tickets on Goldstar), and for “That Lovin’ Feelin’” at The Group Rep (FB) for January 17 (in case the REP’s delay pushes their first show back to February). There is currently nothing on the schedule for February, except for February 28, when we are seeing The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.