Fortunately for Houston, there’s no greater getaway than a bit of time travel back to the turn of the century for Circus 1903, a revolutionary performance piece that’s both innovative and familiar. “I never thought I’d be the ringmaster of any kind, let alone a throwback circus like this,” recalls David Williamson, a magician by trade who has taken on the top hat of the big-top emcee Willy Whipsnade.
“I was in the cast of The Illusionists. Simon Painter, who was a producer for The Illusionists, had been a producer for a number of other Cirque shows, Cirque Linware and La Grand Cirque," Williamson adds. "But for 15 years, he told me, he had this idea: a retro, throwback, old-school, old-fashioned circus. And when he told me about that, it has always been in the back of my mind that that ringmaster role has gotta be fun.”
While Williamson expected to have to fight for the part, he turned out to be Painter’s first choice. “I got the call in the summertime. ‘We’re doing the circus and you’re the ringmaster!’ Offer on the spot, which was very flattering. I said, ‘Yes, please, sounds like a blast!’” With a 30-year history working as a corporate magician (for “spoiled executives,” as he puts it), then later on party ships for Disney Cruise Lines (“after the economy crashed,” he says, laughing), Williamson estimates it was his demeanor that landed him the coveted role.
“I guess they knew my energy well, and just thought I was a good fit," he says. "And with Disney, I learned how to work family shows – not kids’ shows, but family shows; that’s a different animal. I loved having three generations of families sitting together and putting together fun magic routines that entertain everyone. I instantly knew this circus had that same appeal.”
"People are never ready for the emotional impact of the elephants." — David Williamson, Circus 1903's 'Ringmaster'
Williamson expects people to be wowed by the families of acrobats, gymnasts and “old-school” circus acts. “People just haven’t seen acts like this, this close or enhanced with such a fantastic soundtrack, true-to-the-period costumes and the lighting. It all conspires together to transport audiences and to enhance the circus acts. That was a big point for Simon, that no act should just be atmospheric. Every moment has a spotlight on it, one at a time. It’s old-school circus, the way it used to be presented – and in that way, it’s almost new again.”
Not to be outdone by hordes of bewildering circus talent, the ringmaster admits to having to step his game up to match. “There’s comedy, lots of laughs. We don’t have clowns in our circus, but I provide a lot of laughs in my routine. I’m the only one with a [microphone] and I bring four kids up onstage, and every night it’s different and hilarious. They’re just being themselves and I put ’em through their paces.”
Of course, perhaps the aspect of the event that has gotten so much press is the life-size elephant puppet, created by the team from the West End’s War Horse. “People are never ready for the emotional impact of the elephants. I wasn’t even prepared for when they hit the lights and the mist…I had a lump in my throat. It is about what human beings are capable of.“
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on June 9 and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. on June 10 and 11 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $40-46.