It doesn't really matter that Gunther Gebel-Williams looks like an ice-blond evil genius in a James Bond movie. Or that Southern belles and Roman gladiators seem out of place under the big top. What matters is that the kids have a good time and don't throw up the blue cotton candy.
Seen through adult eyes, the 119th edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is a weird coupling of Fellini and Saturday morning cartoons -- pratfalls, sweaty bodies, tons of hair spray and millions and millions of sequins.
To kids, it's 17 elephants standing in a line. Cool! It's bears riding a bicycle. Neat! It's light swords!
It is a world unto itself.
The undisputed star of the show, which opened Wednesday night at the D.C. Armory, is wild animal trainer Gebel-Williams, affectionately referred to as "Lord of the Rings, King of the Jungle, the Golden Gladiator, the Caesar of the Circus!" on his Farewell Tour, after 20 years in the ring.
Gebel-Williams's death-defying feats involve not getting stomped or slashed to death. His main claim to fame appears to be Animal Wheelies, which basically consist of getting the animals to stand on their back feet.
It must be a big deal because Gebel-Williams does it a lot. First, he has his Liberty Lippizaners do Horse Wheelies. A little later, he lines up nine Bengal tigers and has them do Tiger Wheelies. The opening-night crowd was especially impressed with the Tiger Disco Wheelie, in which a tiger does a wheelie on top of a rotating mirrored ball.
Last, but not least, there are the tons-of-fun Elephants Wheelies and the Elephant Conga Line with 17 Mammoth Mastodons of Magnificent Might.
(Wheelies, by the way, are verboten in the eyes of the animal rights activists who gathered in front of the armory before the performance. The activists, wearing tiger, bear and clown costumes, were protesting the use of wild animals in the show. The more creative in the group went for the Gebel-Williams look, which consisted of dime-store silver-blond wigs and placards that read: "Gunther: Phony Hair, Rotten Care." The animals, not the hair.)
Gebel-Williams is surrounded by extravagant production numbers, such as the "Gone With the Wind" set where he runs around the center ring with his horses as Scarlett O'Hara look-alikes stepping out of their hoop skirts and hanging around -- literally -- from ropes in the other two rings. A bit later, we slide back in time to Imperial Rome, complete with temple maidens wearing itty-bitty gladiator outfits and huge urns spouting poofs of flame. And the tigers. Tigers, you recall, were very big in ancient Rome.
Even a wild animal trainer needs time to change into yet another magnificently sequined ensemble, so while Gebel-Williams is out of the spotlight, there are the aerial acts with triple somersaults (attempted "simultaneously by two women!" cooed the ringmaster). And Marie Perry, the undulating hula-hoop girl. "This should be a must for all the housewives of America," observed one appreciative husband. And the Living Statues -- a me'nage a` trois of bronzed gymnasts who strike statuesque poses.
And there are the clowns, of course. The Greatest Show on Earth is renowned for its clowns, and this year's batch seems to hold up that tradition, especially the guys on the stilts. Sequins have their place for the adults, but it's the clowns that the children shyly slide up to during intermission.
Speaking of children, this year's kid must-haves include the lighting magic wand ($6), "makes every day a circus day"; the rotating tiger head flashlight ($7); and the light sword ($7). A small stuffed elephant will set a doting parent back $14; add $4 to that if you get the little plastic Gunther riding on top.
But then, that's the circus. Where else are you going to see bears doing the hula?
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus continues through April 23 at the D.C. Armory.