Ringling Bros. rolls out its greatest overhaul with new look, story

From Associated Press

The Greatest Show on Earth has gotten a makeover.

When the 136th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus opened earlier in January, it had a completely new look -- from the stage (no more three rings) to the costumes.

It had been 50 years since major changes were made to the show, says Kenneth Feld, owner of Ringling Bros. The previous changes were made when Feld's father, Irvin, moved the circus from traveling tents to indoor arenas.

"We do a lot of market research, and people today -- well, their lives are three-ring circuses. People wanted more focused, interactive entertainment. They want something they can't see anywhere else. So the thought was: Let's reimagine the circus," Feld says.

The team of brainstormers included production designer Robert Brill, who staged Broadway's revival of "Cabaret" at the former Studio 54 disco, and costume designer Colleen Atwood, whose credits include the films "Chicago," "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "Memoirs of a Geisha." Bradley Zweig is the writer; he's a veteran of children's programming, including Nickelodeon, National Geographic and the Disney Channel.

But the idea of weaving a story that linked all the acts came from director Shanda Sawyer. Her credits include designing and directing segments for "Motown Live," "The Man Show" and "Comedy Central's Sunday Comics."

The audience now experiences circus life through the eyes of an average American "family," who just happen to be actors, Feld says. By the end of the show, the mom is a glamorous trapeze artist, the dad is a ringmaster, the teenage daughter a circus dancer and the young son a foot-juggler.

Since this version of the circus has more of a story than ever before, it also was the first time they really thought about costumes making sense for characters and how they'd fit in to the bigger picture, Feld says.

For example, horseback riders are a running theme throughout the show. The first time they appear, they're in a precision drill wearing regal red, black and green coats with gold trim. On the next outing, they're doing Roman-style riding with coats off, wearing capes that blow in the wind as the rider straddles two horses.

The third time out, the riders are doing acrobatics, wearing only gold vests and black pants -- no shirts. "You see what their bodies are about and what incredibly fit people they are," Feld says.

"Now was the time for change because we listened to our audience," says Feld. "And we now can't wait 50 years to change the show again, it might have to be every year. We want it to be totally unexpected but retain the traditions: elephants, clowns and death-defying acts."

Not all audiences will see this revamped 136th edition this year, though. Ringling Bros. has three touring units moving across the country at once. The blue tour is the newest, while the red and gold likely will be getting their major overhauls next year.

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