Last year's Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth wasn't. Sure, the tall man was very tall and the small man was very small, but watching a circus from bleachers in a coliseum annihilates the intimate sense of danger (and the smell of greasepaint) that makes the circus so compelling, and on the cusp of the 21st century, wild animal acts conjure little more than sympathy for the beasts.
Which makes Barnum's Kaleidoscape, a lavish one-ring show with its feet still firmly planted in traveling roadshow tradition, a happy surprise. Stepping through the giant, blinking O, the crowd finds itself mingling with performers who dance a lively ragtime atop turn-of-the-century tableau wagons. Another tunnel empties into the main tent's luxurious crushed red velvet chairs and couches and a balcony-style stage supported by golden horses, giants, and archers from a Greek epic. The Clown of Clowns, Italy's David Larible, possesses a comedic dexterity and charm worthy of a solo show. Kaleidoscape boasts the only truly sexy juggler in the world -- a macho Spaniard named Picasso who juggles balls with his mouth -- and a crazy English band that plays toilets, exhaust pipes, and vacuum cleaners. The most dramatic act, three square-jawed, muscular men from Morocco who call themselves the Golden Statues, drove the ladies mad in L.A., but in the Bay Area, they're more likely to serve as fleshy fodder for "Pleasuredome" fantasies. Traditional high wire, trapeze, marksmen, perch, and Russian swing acts are all given an unusual twist and executed with utmost skill and grace. Which is the greatest show now? Clue: It's not French Canadian. Kaleidoscape opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (and runs through July 11) at the San Mateo County Expo Center, 2495 South Delaware, San Mateo. Admission is $22-52; call (877) 9-BARNUM.