Ah, the circus: astonishing acts of balance and strength, courageous aerial derring-do, fluffy white dogs on their hind legs in a conga line . . .
Honestly, you never know what you'll see when the big top comes to town. And even though the Big Apple Circus, whose show "Grandma Goes to Hollywood" is at Dulles Town Center, isn't offering an especially eyepopping collection of acts, there is still plenty to delight the child within (or sitting beside you).
Does a circus need a theme? This one uses the movies, but it hardly matters: It's not as if the jugglers here juggle cans of film, though those fluffy dogs do their bizarre leaping-sliding-dancing bit accompanied by a jazzed-up "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" ("and your little dog, too" -- get it?).
Hollywood music ripples through the show, played by a plucky little orchestra and occasionally sung by a Broadway-style belter named Kathy Halenda. But the movie motif really looks clever only when trapeze artists dressed as pirates scurry up rope ladders and swing from supports that vaguely resemble a ship's masts.
The niftiest act in "Grandma" has to be the Anhui Troupe, a collection of Chinese acrobats who catapult one another into the air off a teeterboard (basically a seesaw). Here's the tricky part: After they've been launched and execute a few somersaults or twists, a reclining acrobat catches them with his feet. He lies on a platform maybe 10 feet in the air, and he flips one of the most flexible gals 10 times, spinning her like a bicycle wheel.
The strongman act by Virgile Peyramaure and Andrey Mantchev is pretty good, too, unless you're accustomed to doing this at home: 1. Lie down. 2. Coax a friend into standing on his head, placing the top of his head and entire body weight in the palm of your hand. 3. Lift.
The clowning isn't great, yet the comedians (including Grandma the Clown, played by Barry Lubin) manage to pull laughs out of scenarios that don't seem all that promising. Willer Nicolodi, in particular, takes a ventriloquism bit that's going nowhere and then, with the help of a few volunteers plucked from the crowd, leaves the audience in stitches.
The show as a whole never threatens to become awesome; it's mostly very nice. The wildest animal on view is a dancing horse, and when four jugglers toss things to each other in pretty patterns, they stick to clubs (no bowling balls or chain saws), and only three apiece. Still, it's an honest-to-goodness circus, which means every so often you can count on hearing kids all across the tent shouting things like "I love that move!" and sounding perfectly reasonable.
Big Apple Circus: Grandma Goes to Hollywood, at Dulles Town Center (intersection of Routes 7 and 28) through Oct. 10. Approximately 21/2 hours. Call 703-573-SEAT, 202-397-SEAT, 410-547-SEAT or visit www.ticketmaster.com.