Theater & dance


At Big Apple Circus, feats for the eyes

Big Apple Circus headliners the Wallendas performing their seven-person pyramid.
Maike Schulz
Big Apple Circus headliners the Wallendas performing their seven-person pyramid.

SOMERVILLE — Every day brings more spectacle: Dog and pony shows. Harrowing high-wire stunts. Red-faced clowning and comical blundering.

But if you need a break from the news, go to the circus.

The Big Apple Circus is back in Boston for its landmark 40th season. Actually, it’s in Somerville, at Assembly Row, where the coming and going are more hospitable to young families schlepping strollers and diaper bags than was City Hall Plaza, the Big Top’s previous landing spot. Having survived a bankruptcy a year ago, the cozy one-ring circus has redoubled its commitment to entertainment that’s by turns rousing, amusing, and as bustling as the city it’s named for.


In the wake of the death of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the new Big Apple producers are aiming to take their own production to another level. They’ve brought in as headliners the Wallendas, the first family of tightrope daredevilry. In performance almost every day (often with more than one showtime) through the first week of May, frontman Nik Wallenda — the first person to walk a wire across the Grand Canyon — anchors his extended family in the show-stopping seven-person pyramid, high above the audience. At one midday matinee last week, Wallenda was dripping copious sweat from his brow as he became the last of the seven to step off the wire to the safety of the high-rise platform.

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This year’s edition of the circus features plenty of other jaw-dropping feats, ranging from the Tuniziani brothers’ trapeze act, which culminates in a quadruple somersault attempt, to the balance board master Jan Damm, who teeters atop stacks of buckets and boards on a “rola bola” cylindrical roller. Contortionist Elayne Kramer caps her own showcase by shooting an arrow through a balloon — from a handstand, with her feet.

The Big Apple is known for its intimate scale. All seats in the circular space hug up to the single ring, from which the performers’ facial expressions — elation, frustration, deep concentration — are unambiguous.

The darkness in the audience is dotted with flashing, whirling colored lights from a popular gizmo sold at the souvenir shop. In the tent, the faint, sweet smell of manure from the animal acts is ever-present. From a multi-tiered riser behind the ring, the house band fills the air with a crisp medley of pop hits, playing, for example, “Get Lucky” while Damm jumps rope on his balance board.

As the crew prepares the stage for each successive act, the spotlight shines on the clown team called Mr. Joel and Skip. Their slapstick routines, involving, among other things, a tuba, a whoopee cushion, and lots of splashing water, are well-crafted and genuinely funny.


Following its reorganization, the Big Apple Circus continues to refine its blend of the traditional and contemporary circus. Near the end of the show, ringmaster Ty McFarlan — himself a refugee from Ringling Bros. — says, “The circus will always be here for you.” Though the line is directed at the kids, parents, and grandparents in the seats, he might as well be addressing his fellow performers.

Big Apple Circus

At Assembly Row, Somerville, through May 6. Tickets from $25,

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.