Does a circus really need a story? Or is it enough to let the elephants be elephants, the acrobats be acrobats, the clowns be clowns?
The 136th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, at the TD Banknorth Garden through next weekend, believes we need a narrative to get us through the show. So there's a framing device, a light-as-air tale about a family plucked from the audience and allowed to live its circus "dreams."
The lucky Dad, in fact, is Chuck Wagner, a Broadway veteran who has played Inspector Javert in "Les Miserables." Here, transformed into a ringmaster, he seems to channel William Shatner. Mom is an Argentine trapeze artist named Gisela Riquelme; daughter Jan is a dancer from Brazil. The protagonist is the son, Dan, played in different acts by Ruirui Zhou and Dashan Hou. In real life, they're teenage members of a Chinese acrobatic troupe.
Dan is supposed to be finding his place in the circus, and therefore his bliss: This is one of those Disneyfied stories about how you can do anything you dream, so long as you have a harness and a safety net. There's even a fairy princess of sorts, played with outstretched arms by Jennifer Fuentes, a contestant from the second season of "American Idol." She grins in her sequined gowns, channeling her happiness at singing lite-pop music. (If we're going with "Idol" alumni, I'd love to see a circus with Kellie Pickler at the helm. Or how about Chris Sligh?)
The upbeat songs aren't terribly distracting, but they're hardly necessary, either. The circus itself is entertainment enough; it's not every day that you get to watch people swing from trapezes and hang by their ankles from billowing cloth. The real show begins with nimble hat juggling - mixed with human pyramids - from the Shenzhen Troupe from China. There's a stoic strongman, "Herkules," played by a former math teacher from Hungary, and a proud-looking group of daring horseback riders from Russia, the Igor Kassaev Cossacks.
White tiger tricks are always impressive, even when seen from the safe side of a formidable metal cage. But it's equally amazing to see a woman work wonders with a set of obedient housecats. And at one point, Fuentes - introduced as "Missy Elephant" - sings a watered-down hip-hop song and leads the pachyderms in a surprisingly graceful dance routine.
The elephants are the hardest workers here, walking the ring in grand circles, ambling onstage to turn tricks with a strongman or cavort with the clowns. They also turn up in a series of videos that play between acts. Here, they appear to talk about how they've trained the humans.
If any human trick falls short of expectations, it's the clown routine. More than a dozen clowns goof their way through elaborate set pieces involving a food fight and a Nascaresque speed derby, and the effect is manic, but overwhelming. No single performer gets the time or space to do the small, personality-driven tricks that could be truly magical.
But the Ringling Bros. circus has no interest in being small. Unlike the Big Apple Circus that set up in City Hall Plaza last spring - and showcased a charming, versatile live band - this production feels more corporate and more canned. Here, the most satisfying performances do turn out to be the biggest spectacles. Just before intermission, the Yunnan Flyers, members of another Chinese troupe, soar through the air on oversize swings and catch one another with stunning confidence.
And the finale involves the Torres Family, a group of brothers and cousins from Paraguay, who ride motorcycles inside a small steel globe. Watch them, and your emotions swing from surprise to fear to relief. From the circus, that's really all the story you need.