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‘Circus 1903’ gets real with faux elephants

Updated July 20, 2017 - 2:35 pm

The man who plays the ringmaster Willy Whipsnade in “Circus 1903” muses about his show’s great quandary.

“How do we stand out?” Whipsnade, whose real name is David Williamson, asks. “Well, the elephants. Our story. Our talent. And, our heart.”

“Circus 1903” is — as its name implies — is an intentionally antiquated circus, performed essentially as it would have been imore than a century ago.

The production debuts an open-ended run at Paris Theater next Tuesday. The show offered a sneak preview in a rehearsal studio in North Las Vegas Tuesday .

Aside from advanced lighting and sound technology, “Circus 1903” takes audiences back to a time before Cirque du Soleil seized the medium and created multimillion dollar spectacles up and down the Strip. Suffice to say, in “Circus 1903,” there is no man-made lake serving as a stage (as in “O”) or stage that rises to face the audience (as in “Ka”). And that’s OK with the performers in “1903.”

“I love Cirque, but our show reminds people of why they love the circus in the first place,” Williamson says. “It is an homage to the real circus.”

The elephants Williamson refers to are actually human-operated puppets, named Queenie and Peanut. They are brought to life by Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller of Significant Object, a British design company perhaps best known in the U.S. for creating the equine stars of the Broadway show “War Horse.”

The real tug here is what Williamson calls “the root of the circus” — the disciplined and gifted acrobats and artists who inhabit the big top – or, on the Strip, the former “Jersey Boys” theater. There is a teeter board duo and a human contortionist in the show, the sort of artists you can’t stop watching. The elephants, arriving through a haze of mist, are imposing and even a little disquieting even though you realize there are people inside those beasts.

The man who strings it all together is Williamson, a crafty stage vet who is a highly regarded magician with a biting wit. His favorite show in Las Vegas is “Absinthe,” his friends include David Copperfield, Lance Burton and Mac King.

“I have known I wanted to do this since I was 10 years old,” Williamson says. “I told my mom, ‘I want to be a magician!” and she said, ‘OK, good. One less kid to worry about.’ “

Williamson is well-known in magician circles, having performed corporate shows for 25 years, he says, “Until that world dried up in 2009.”

“I never did comedy clubs, and my showbiz roots are different from Mac and Lance,” says Williamson, who wears a handlebar mustache onstage and stands about 6-foot-5 in his stage boots. “Then I did shows on Disney Cruise Lines, which I loved, especially after performing these corporate shows for spoiled bankers and executives for 25 years. I love getting families rocking and rolling and laughing.”

Williamson joined the ensemble magic production “The Illusionists,” in London and was convinced by that show’s producer, Simon Painter of The Works Entertainment, to take the lead in this new-old circus project.

“In my first meeting with Simon about this idea, he went on and on and on about this old circus show,” Williamson says. “’We’ll have elephants! But they are not real elephants! It will be great!’ “

The puppetry in the show is vital to the visceral impact of the production, especially for children, who stand in awe of the creatures. The artists inside are visible, but the motion and even grunts emanating from these faux-elephants make the creatures seem very real indeed. The use of artificial animals has even drawn praise from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which this week issued a news release praising this “sensational animal-free circus.”

The actor who portrays Whipsnade spends a lot of time with those creatures, and talks of his favorite moment in the show, when he invites four kids to the stage. The adage in show business is not to work with animals or children; Williamson, in character, is effectively surrounded by both.

“This is a risk, to have four kids onstage,” Williamson says, chuckling. “It’s wild, but it’s also priceless. Every night on tour, we have these grizzled, veteran, union stagehands in the wings, and they are laughing, every night, because it is different every show. It’s re-living your childhood, and knowing this moment will live with this kid forever.”

As if shifting into his Whipsnade character, Williamson says, “It seems, in hindsight, I’ve been preparing all my life to be in this show.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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