Step Right Up

"There's a sucker born every minute," or so said Phineas Taylor Barnum, the greatest American trickster who ever lived. As a boy of 12, Barnum sold lottery tickets. In 1835 the 25-year-old huckster honed his skills touring the globe with Joice Heth, a woman who claimed to be George Washington's 161-year-old nurse. At 31, Barnum snookered the gullible by exhibiting "500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe." In grand flimflam style he posted signs that read, "This way to the egress." The morbidly curious got their comeuppance when they went through the curtain only to discover that "egress" is just another word for "exit." They had to pay twice to see more.

Of such shenanigans and slick-smiling wickedness came The Greatest Show On Earth, Barnum's most noteworthy accomplishment. As exotic, fearless and brazen as any sideshow wonder, this circus has become one of the most romantic notions in the American dream machine -- though anyone who has seen the overweight colossus that has lately lumbered through Compaq Center might beg to differ.

Enter Barnum's Kaleidoscape, a whole new circus that harks back to the days of sideshow grifters and heartbreaking clowns. It's the sort of circus that will fill the soul of every grown-up boy or girl who once dreamed of slipping under the scarlet-striped big top and into the mythical past where real corn popped, golden beer frothed and lithe, sequined performers danced close enough to be touched. Fortunately the retro concept only goes so far: This tent is fully equipped with such '90s amenities as air-conditioning, heat, a gourmet pasta bar and a cart full of lovely bottles of wine, beer and booze. And for the kids there's still the counter with overpriced, shiny trinkets, cups of bubbling soda and that whipped-up pink cardboard that's passed off as cotton candy.

The food, drink and gewgaws can be bought during the hourlong "preshow," a grand ploy to empty the pockets of ticket holders in the spirit of old Barnum himself. As the audience mills about nibbling fettuccine and sipping chardonnay, charming Dr. Seuss-style melodies tumble from the Nuts and Bolts band, a group of silly oldtimers who play such things as a vacuum cleaner, a Rolls-Royce muffler and a serpentine trumpet. And like elegantly dressed street performers, acrobats and clowns tumble and juggle and leap through the crowd, whose wide-eyed members grin ear to ear at their good fortune.

But it's after the hour of bacchanalian noshing that the real exotics come out to play. The Kabanov trapeze artists plunge off an enormous swinging platform that rises higher and higher into the air as the stunts get more and more dangerous. Guy Tell, who, according to the program, comes from a long line of sharpshooters, uses modern-day aerodynamics to reconfigure the oldest trick in the book: He shoots an apple off his own head. The Golden Statues, an erotic trio of gold-painted muscular men, lift and twist and hold one another in long, gravity-defying poses. Olga and Istvan trot out a gaggle of silly geese that flap their wings in unison and dance a sort of oversize funky chicken to the giggling delight of kids and, yes, even a few adults.

Without a doubt, the best part of this show is the clowns. A white-faced, European-style prankster named Pipo serves as straight man to David Larible's goofy ragamuffin. In big shoes and a red schnoz, Larible cavorts through the audience, juggling, dancing and miming the funniest, sweetest and saddest slow-motion death scene I've ever seen. These are clowns as they were meant to be: very, very funny.

Kaleidoscape feels as though it has been pieced together by some grand hoodwinker who knows how much we all love to be played. P.T. Barnum would be proud. Barnum's Kaleidoscape opens Tuesday, December 28, at 7:30 p.m. and runs through January 23 with various showtimes. The big top is in the parking lot at the corner of McKinney and Crawford streets, in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center. Call (877)9-BARNUM or go to www.ticketmaster.com for tickets and more information. $19.75-$48.

 
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