The lights dim under Circus Juventas’s big top for its new summer show, Showdown, and suddenly, everything transforms. Old country melodies and rustic staging turn the small corner of St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood into the Wild West. Then, the kids who greeted you with programs at the front door suddenly appear before you as world-class aerialists, acrobats, and stunt performers.
The thrilling spectacle is a showcase of 70 of the most advanced students from Circus Juventas, the largest youth circus-arts school in the country. The Wild West adventure—where you meet big names like music-hall superstar Lillie Langtry, quick-shooting lawman Wyatt Earp, and teenage outlaw Billy the Kid—blends the awe-inspiring physical feats of Cirque du Soleil with the theatrical splendor of children’s theater. But there is nothing child-like about the talent in this show. The budding stars fearlessly swing, flip, and soar through the air like pros.
Showdown’s plot takes you from within a goldmine, to a saloon, to the main street of the small frontier town in which it is set. Performers dazzle audience members atop a Russian swing; giant, spinning wheel; and high wire. They juggle, whip, and spin flames, and masterfully climb aerial ropes in unison. But every movement, no matter how small, is executed with the purpose and tact of an actor and the grace of a dancer.
If you really want to put a show to the test, take a skeptic. For Friday’s opening performance, I took two. They both said they’d seen it all, and were more concerned with the concession stands than hand stands. But by the middle of the performance, I could sense a change in their attitudes. As performers attempted a seven-man pyramid on the high wire—and became only the second youth circus in history to successfully execute it—the skeptics turned into cheerleaders, leading a quiet, supportive cheer in our section.
As Dan Buttler—who started the St. Paul school with his wife, Betty, 18 years ago—announced the show’s intermission, he reminded audience members of the school’s mission to instill confidence in local youth. Judging by the performance, mission accomplished. You leave wishing you had had the opportunity to try the things these students do so well during your own childhood, and, though the show is nearly three-and-a-half hours long, wanting more.
Stages around the Twin Cities are full of some of the best entertainers the area has to offer right now with the Fringe Festival in full swing. But make no mistake: You don’t want to miss this show.
Through August 19
The Big Top, 1270 Montreal Ave., St. Paul