By Kelly Burch
---- — For centuries, the circus has entertained viewers around the world by pushing the limits and showcasing thrilling acts.
This year, when The Big Apple Circus erects its Big Top tent on City Hall Plaza for its annual Boston engagement, the focus will be different.
Of course, thrills and laughter will ensue. This year, however, the show will look back to the roots of the circus. “Legendarium” explores, you guessed it, the legends of circuses past, while keeping up the excitement and world-class acts for which the Big Apple is known.
“We’re going to set the tone of how things started,” said Ringmaster John Kennedy Kane. “But this is in no way a history lesson. It’s full of fun facts and great acts.”
Kane participated in one of the greatest circus legends himself when he ran away with the show more than 30 years ago. Since then, he has been a concessionaire, a clown, a magician, and a fire-eater, to name just a few. This is Kane’s first year as the ringmaster at Big Apple, but he was thrilled to already have been asked back for next season.
“My job is to make people believe I am in charge, that I’m more important than I am,” Kane said. “The ringmaster is an actor.”
While his stage persona may be an act, it is clear that Kane genuinely enjoys the unique perspective that being the ringmaster gives him. During one of his favorite points in the show, Kane disappears above the set, while the horse act performs. As the audience watches the 12 ponies galloping around the ring, Kane has a bird’s-eye view of the action.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “We almost need a camera up there to catch it.”
Over his years in show business, Kane has worked with more than 15 circuses. Working The Big Apple is a highlight of his career, he said.
“I know the circus,” he said, “and this is the finest, most artistic circus in America.”
The circus has a reputation for fun and carefree adventure, but a lot of work goes into making the show just right. Kane said that preparing for The Big Apple Circus isn’t very different than preparing for a Broadway production.
“Everyone is an artist here,” he said. “They make it as close to a theatrical production as they can.”
While most people think amazing gymnasts and brave lion tamers are the forces that give circus its magic, Kane said that behind-the-scenes forces like the writer and director really help the show deliver on its flawless reputation.
West Hyler, who directs “Legendarium,” previously worked on Broadway with “Jersey Boys” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” He has been working on “Legendarium” for three years.
“I love the writing,” Kane said.
Without giving specifics, Kane said that many of the acts in “Legendarium” have a subtle, clever humor that appeals to circus-goers of all ages.
That is important, since no children today wake up and ask to go to the circus, he said. Instead, they are brought by parents and grandparents who have great memories of going to the circus as children.
“The kids come in, and they’re skeptical, because they’re used to being entertained by videos,” Kane said. “But then they’re right there, and the show is right in front of you. You can’t help but become involved because it’s that intimate, that close. It’s a totally different experience.”
If You Go What: The Big Apple Circus, "Legendarium." Where: City Hall Plaza, Boston. When: March 26 to May 12. How: Get tickets by calling 1-888-541-3750, or online at bigapplecircus.org.