The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus wasn't quite the greatest show on earth in its opening last night at the D.C. Armory.

A recalcitrant tiger set the tone of the evening. The beast refused to budge out of its cage and join its mates in the center ring at the beginning of Charly Baumann's "Phalanx of Fearsome Felines," the first featured act on the program.

While the band played on, while the rest of the tigers twiddled their claws, while the audience ordered more popcorn, Baumann and assistants furiously poked and prodded the latecomer. This feline was more finicky than fearsome.

Finally the cat relented and joined its comrades, but the tone of the evening already had been set.

The elephants trained by Buckles and Barbara Woodcock were considerably more cooperative than the tigers, there was a grand and gaudy finale to the first act, and the Urias Troupe drove their motorcycles in strikingly precise orbits around a big steel sphere.

But these highlights didn't seem as high as the thrills and chills circuses sometimes provide. There were no audible gasps of fright, even though there were a number of minor mistakes throughout the evening.

There wasn't much laughter either, despite the strenous efforts of a pack of clowns. These folks are described in the program as "Captains of Comedy-Madcap Mirthmasters Contribute Fabulous Foolishness and Riotous Rib-Tickling With a Serving Of Side-Splitting Silliness." Maybe such language raises undue expectations, but not a single side could be detected splitting last night.

The children who got to join the first-act finale were as wide-eyed as ever, of course, and there were several exceptional young performers on view, including a juvenile elephant and its rider, 6-year-old Deliliah Woodcock.

But many of the adults seemed to be having an off night. CAPTION: Picture, no caption