Be a Clown -- If You Must

New Pickle Circus hams it up in Jump Cuts! Take Two; Weslia Whitfield sings a mesmerizing evening

New Pickle Circus' Jump Cuts! Take Two again uses Hollywood as inspiration for a lighthearted romp through various film genres -- westerns, hard-boiled detective stories, romances, and exotic adventures à la Indiana Jones. Conceived, directed, and choreographed by Tandy Beal from last year's Jump Cuts!, this is entertainment intended for all ages: a circus format to appeal to kids, enhanced by a playfully comedic sensibility to entertain adults.

Movies may provide a loose semblance of plot -- clowns Razz (Jeff Raz) and Pino (Diane Wasnak) take a fantasy tour of a studio -- but the show's reason for being is to give its talented acrobats, jugglers, and clowns a place to shine. And shine they do, for the most part, assisted by the lively accompaniment of the Pickle Circus jazz band -- Bill Belasco, Dale Gutridge, Lars Jacobsen, and Dave Udolf. Six other performers (Teresa Dinaberg, William Forchion, Aloysia Gavre-Wareham, Aidan O'Shea, Sam Payne, and Serenity Smith-Forchion) romp, jump, spin, tumble, and twist, often from precarious perches high above the stage.

This is very basic circus. No lions, except for two terrific guys in a suit; no tightrope walkers; no trained dogs wearing funny hats. But there are plenty of inventive costumes (Beaver Bauer), some really cool effects -- such as the one-person tornado out of The Wizard of Oz -- and a wonderful balancing act on a tower of chairs by acrobat Payne (created with the circus' trainer, Lu Yi).

The show's glue is the antics of its two featured clowns, Pino and Razz, who, along with guest artist John Gilkey, provide the only real variety and laughs over the course of two long and repetitious acts.

Let's be candid here: I'm not too crazy about clowns. Remember the scene in the movie Tootsie when, after unmasking himself and being spurned by Jessica Lange, Dustin Hoffman punches out the mime in Central Park? That is a fair summation of how I feel about clowns. Especially when they harass the audience by climbing over seats and sitting uninvited on laps, or do things like "volunteering" a hapless ticket-holder and shaming him into (possibly) making a fool of himself onstage. (He didn't; he did just fine.) Mostly I'm not too crazy about clowns because I just don't find them funny. If you do, that's great. You don't need to keep reading. Just cut to the second section of this column, secure in the knowledge that you are definitely a much better and happier person than I am.

But if you share my feelings, be warned, this is clown city. (There's something so desperate about most clowns. They strain so hard to amuse, and I keep thinking, If only they understood that humor is about deflecting attention, not focusing it on their terrible, desperate -- there's that word again -- need to get a laugh.) Pino and Razz have moments that are right up there with the typically awful. But for the most part they manage to keep the show moving, to keep it bright and focused.

Razz is the bigger of the two, but he manages his tumbling chores with surprising grace. Pino is the diminutive wise guy, the mischievous kid whose infectious grin acts as commentary whenever the stage business threatens to get boring.

John Gilkey, the guest artist, is a long and lanky clown whose masterful juggling routine with a coat rack provides one of the show's highlights. I also enjoyed Pino and Razz in tuxedo (Pino) and very large prom dress (Razz). But my favorite part of the show was the simplest: a juggling routine with luminous balls done in the dark to great comic effect.

Still. At two acts and two hours the show is too long for the many little children in the audience, and too repetitious for the adults who brought them. There's just not enough variety in the various tumbling routines to differentiate them one from another. The performers are engaging and charming, but seeing them do slightly different versions of what they just did gives the cynics among us time to wonder if the routines are really that difficult after all. A show like this needs to move quickly, to surprise with wit and speed, to thrill with steady momentum.

But, hey. It's Christmas. If you like circuses, you'll have fun. If you like clowns, you'll have fun. If you have kids, they may have fun. Maybe you'll even get to make a fool of yourself onstage.

Weslia Whitfield is back at the Plush Room after a smashing run at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. She's calling the show Street of Dreams because, as she wryly explains, it's the first song on the playlist and because "they make us call it something." But it's a good title, combining as it does fragile romanticism with an allusion to Broadway, source of many of the fine old standards she retools to her unique style. At once playful and bluesy, her silky smooth voice glides over such familiar favorites as "Show Me" (Lerner and Loewe), "This Can't Be Love" (Rodgers and Hart), "I Got Rhythm" (George and Ira Gershwin), and "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" (Porter).

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