Fresno audiences will be among the first to see “Circus 1903,” a nostalgic look at life under the Big Top.
Saturday’s show at the Saroyan Theatre isn’t just another one-day theater performance, it’s the last technical rehearsal before the production opens a run at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre before moving on to Denver, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and then New York.
“Circus 1903” will have the distinction of being the first time a major Broadway-caliber touring show has opened in Fresno. This kind of opening is, according to Bill Overfelt, general manger of the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center, the result of years of work.
“I think you are seeing a trend that we have been able to get going. Through these two-week runs of Broadway series starting with ‘Wicked’ three years ago, they know they can bring that level of entertainment here and sell lots and lots of tickets,” Overfelt says.
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Simon Painter, the man behind the traveling circus show, says Fresno was selected for the final technical performance because of the facility, which can handle five containers of elephants, and location. Transporting all of the props, players and circus particulars to Los Angeles isn’t that big a trip.
The show begins its long run at the same time word is spreading that Ringling Brothers Circus will pack up its tents for good after almost a century and a half of entertaining young and old. Painter’s massive stage show comes complete with all the trappings of a traveling circus, including a very different and humane take on presenting performing elephants.
“It has been very sad to hear that Ringling Brothers is ending. It’s such a piece of American history,” Painter says. “But they are ending for some good reasons. It’s very expensive and they have removed the elephants from their shows. We are bringing elephants back.”
It won’t be real pachyderms stomping across the downtown stage but puppets, brought to life by the team behind “War Horse.” The rest of the production features real performers flying, leaping and performing on and above the stage.
This is the latest production from Painter, who has been putting together large stage shows for more than a decade. His past work includes “Adrenaline,” “Le Noir” and “Le Grand Cirque.” Working with Tim Lawson, Simon created “The Illusionists” franchise in 2012.
It was through “The Illusionists” that Painter became familiar with the Saroyan stage. He knew that while his show is designed to fit almost any stage, there would be plenty of room for the “Circus 1903” acts at the Saroyan.
“The show is really complicated with acrobatics and aerialists. Act 1 is the movement of the circus and putting up the tent, and Act 2 are the performances,” Painter says.
He’s used the circus as a backdrop for past shows, but this time he has gone back to the early 20th century because he finds it to be such a beautiful time period. This was a time when a traveling circus coming to town was one of the biggest events of the year. He offers a traditional circus, but he puts a fresh spin on them, including the use of puppets in place of real animals.
The reaction Painter’s been getting is that audiences love the nostalgic feel.
Putting the show together was time-consuming, as Painter had to round up strongmen, contortionists, acrobats, musicians, knife throwers, high-wire performers and acrobats. It was a long process to make the puppet elephants look and move as real as possible.
It was also important for Painter, who started his career as a classical violinist, to make the music as appropriate as possible. The soundtrack is inspired by the music of the early 20th century.
- 8 p.m. Saturday
- Saroyan Theatre
- Tickets: $33, $43, $53, $63
- Available through Ticketmaster or at the venue’s main box office, 700 M. St.