New show brings back live elephants, sort of

NEW YORK (AP) — Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus may have retired their iconic elephants but there’s still a way to see the huge beasts onstage.

The new touring show “Circus 1903,” which makes its American debut next year, features two life-size elephants — one baby, one massive mamma — created by the puppeteers and model makers of Significant Object, who made the lifelike horse featured in the hit play “War Horse.”

“These puppets feel real. They’ve been built in a way, even when they’re just standing there doing nothing, they’re just breathing, they absolutely feel real. That’s what we wanted to capture,” said creative and executive producer Simon Painter.

The pachyderms will be part of a show that attempts to capture the magic of circuses at the dawn of the last century, with strong men, foot jugglers, contortionists, acrobats, knife throwers, teeterboarders, high-wire performers and a bicycle stuntman.

The show makes its U.S. bow in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theater on Feb. 14 and then makes stops in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Denver and New York City. Tickets go on sale Monday.

Painter, who has had great success with his magician supergroup franchise “The Illusionist,” said he’s hoping to revive the panache and bravery of the past, “where showmanship was front and center.”

It’s an attempt to jettison the Cirque Du Soleil-led drive for narratives in favor of highlighting the acts themselves, which often tried to outshine the others. “Every single person needs to win the crowd. Every act should be almost the closing act.”

Painter and his team consulted circus historians and picked 1903 because that’s when Barnum & Bailey’s so-called Greatest Show on Earth returned from a five-year tour of Europe. It traveled almost daily with a mind-boggling 1,200 people, 200 wagons and 700 animals.

“The way that they would get you to come — the whole town — was by promising these acts that were beyond anybody’s imagination. And that’s what we’ve tried to do,” said Painter. “We’ve made a massive effort to cast a net as far as possible, just like they did over 100

years ago.”

Many of the acts in the show are being performed by members of the same family, who have passed down their skills over generations and so knew what their ancestors did 100 years ago. For other acts, Painter had to teach the performer new skills — and unlearn tricks from 2016.

“This is, honestly, the show I’ve wanted to make for 15 years,” he said.

In addition to Painter, the producers include Tim Lawson and MagicSpace Entertainment.