Circus Flora Theatrical Director Cecil Mackinnon and actor/clown/”new vaudeville” performer Geoff Hoyle read selections from Dylan Thomas’s story with great relish, the specialty circus acts (including the tumbling kids of the St. Louis Arches) are eye-popping, and the orchestra plays a fair amount of music rarely heard in Powell Hall, including movements from Britten’s “Simple Symphony” and Leroy Anderson’s “Irish Suite”. Besides, how can you not like an evening that concludes with The Flying Wallendas doing their death-defying thing to Walton’s “Crown Imperial” Coronation March?
Music has always been a part of the Circus Flora experience, so the partnership with the symphony isn’t as unusual as it might seem. The big difference is that here the performers were working with music written for other purposes rather than with material composed specifically for their show, but even so director Mackinnon and conductor Alastair Willis have done a remarkable job of matching the music to the acts.
Let me illustrate with a few examples. The lively selections from the “Irish Suite” make an ideal accompaniment to increasingly complex unicycle and juggling routines by the St. Louis Arches, climaxing with David McNabb’s flashy work on the giant-sized giraffe unicycle to Anderson’s arrangement of “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” Vaughan Williams’s lyrical “Fantasia on Greensleeves” is a perfect counterpoint to Andrew Adams’s elegant aerial straps act. And the combination of two selections from “The Nutcracker” (the “Chinese Dance” and “Trepak”) with the progressively lively “Farandole” from Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne” neatly synchs up with the progressively spectacular Risley act of George Coronas and Miles Ashton, in which one performer juggles the other with his feet.
The links between the circus acts and Thomas’s poetic childhood memories were often tangential at best, but Mr. Hoyle read them with such a wonderful feel for the lilt and rhythm of the language that it hardly mattered. His inventive “three-legged man” routine was also one of the highlights of the evening and a masterpiece of misdirection that would be the envy of any magician.
There were other highlights as well. My personal favorites included Shayna Swanson’s Cyr wheel (a kind of giant metal Hula Hoop) and rope turns in the persona of the cheerfully intoxicated “Auntie Hannah,” Aurelia Wallenda-Zoppé’s graceful aerial acrobatics, and Mayya Panfilova’s trained cats.
Yes, that’s right: trained cats. As someone who has lived with cats most of his life, I find the very idea astonishing. Nevertheless, Ms. Panfilova has managed to turn her feline friends’ natural climbing and leaping abilities into an utterly charming and entertaining routine. And the fact that, on Friday night, one of them decided he just wasn’t in the mood to do his upside-down rope climb only added to the fun.
The big event of the evening, of course, was the Wallendas’ trademark human pyramid high above the stage and (happily for us) right at the level of the dress circle boxes. I’ve never been this close to their act before and the combination of that proximity with one of my favorite marches played with precision by the symphony was a fitting end to a lively and entertaining show.
That said, there were a things that didn’t quite work, at least on Friday night, including a bit in which selected audience members were supposed to play “Deck the Halls” on hand bells and an ensemble juggling routine at the beginning of the show. Still, a few misfires are inevitable, even with performers at this level, so I’m chalking it up to The Magic of Live Theatre.
Finally, let me insert a few words of praise for the orchestra’s performance under Mr. Willis’s capable baton. Viewed simply as a musical event, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is a lovely Christmas stocking crammed full of concert favorites and, as noted above, relative rarities. I’ve already mentioned the Walton, Anderson, and Britten, but there were also clever arrangements of classic Christmas carols by Morton Gould (“Good King Wenceslas”) and Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra veteran Carmen Dragon (“Joy to the World”), as well as the “Polonaise” from Rimski-Korsakov’s opera “Christmas Eve.” The band gave us glowing readings of all of them, making this a Christmas present to music lovers as well as to fans of the circus.
There are two more performances of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” tonight (December 15) at 7 PM (please note the early start time) and Sunday at 2 PM. This is absolutely a family friendly event, so feel free to bring the kids. Note, however, that it runs around two and one-half hours, including intermission, so you’ll want to take that into account when deciding whether or not your offspring are old enough to appreciate it.
Next on the calendar: “A Gospel Christmas with Take 6” on Thursday, December 20, (sold out at this time) and the big “Holiday Celebration” (complete with Santa Claus) Friday through Sunday, December 21-23, with Debby Boone and the Holiday Festival Chorus and the orchestra conducted by Ward Stare. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org