In most editions of the Greatest Show on Earth, the climactic spot is reserved for a human cannonball or some such time-warped specialty act. "Fully Charged," the lively and traditionalist 141st edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, has Brian Miser, aka The Human Fuse, a cheery fellow from Peru, Ind., who allows himself to be set on fire and launched across the arena du jour from a human crossbow he built himself.
Fair enough. If somebody were going to shoot you, unshielded and flaming, out of something at 65 miles per hour — for a lonely, 110-foot journey across the arenas of America — then I'd bet you'd want to have some say on the manufacture of the crossbow.
But in fact, Miser does not have the prime spot. That deservedly goes to the Negrey Troupe. On the face of it, this floor-bound troupe of mostly Russian gymnasts (many of them former Olympians) is less flashy than Mr. Flaming Asteroid Hoosier. But it is a truly formidable tumbling act (one of the best I have ever seen) that includes the execution of triple somersaults from the floor (as distinct from a trapeze high in the air, when gravity already has your body in flight). If you think about how hard it would be to do one such somersault, the notion of firing yourself into three from terra firma should give you pause.
This troupe is interesting in other ways. It's a collection of well-built young men presided over by the intriguingly matriarchal Yulia Negrey, who is not in first blush of youth, but still does that kind of inspiring stuff with her bod that few of us could ever do.
Better yet, Negrey solves one of the perennial challenges faced by Ringling: making full use of the arena spaces in which it works.
The producing Feld family is dedicated to the traditions of a circus still known as a three-ring affair. There will, I suspect, always be elephants and tigers, no matter how many protesters gather outside, or even how much sensibilities change. I won't debate any of that here; it's very complicated, and those who oppose animals in circuses certainly should not come to this one. But that issue aside, most venues like the Allstate Arena and the United Center have rectangular playing spaces.
Negrey and her guys lay down an 80-foot tumbling track, and the way they slice through the prosaic space — up and across — is thrilling indeed. If "Fully Charged" also had a full trapeze act (alas, it does not), we'd really be fired up.
Still, there are aerialists aplenty and a premiere high-wire performance from the knockout Danguir Troupe, a frenetic family act that understands that balancing never thrills an audience as much as motion on a wire.
When I saw the circus last Sunday, the Russian clown Stas was out of the show (an injury, I was told) leaving his partner, Vas, to labor mostly alone. The routines didn't work so well, mostly because the audience didn't buy into the premise of the interactive setup. Boy, is there a need for an arena-friendly star clown to fill the hole that has started to gape at Ringling since the exit of the great Bello Nock.
But then, I did not see this act at its best (Stas should be back by the time the show gets to the United Center). I also didn't see the strongmen who appear in the program; apparently they have lifted off for adventures elsewhere. A replacement is pending.
There are no screens in this attractively presented and notably hand-forged, brand-free show — those missteps of the past have been banished — and there is, huzzah, no evident digital technology to distract kids and their parents from the formidable skills of the Negreys and the other fine athlete-performers. I cringed when the vendors with the oversize popcorn showed up just as ringmaster Brian Crawford Scott was singing about the need to "think big" (focus on the dreams, folks, not the suggestive sells; the circus ain't Panda Express). But revenue is revenue, I guess, and it may have been coincidental; it's also worth noting that tickets start at affordable prices.
Thankfully, there are no visible recessionary cutbacks in the Greatest Show, where the band remains big and live, nine elephants parade, 18 Bengal tigers growl and the company still numbers 340 people of the old-school circus.
When: Through Sunday (Allstate Arena), Nov. 16-27 (United Center)
Where: Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim Road, Rosemont; United Center, 1901 W. Madison St.
Tickets: $13-$90; 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com