Even in a city full of Cirque, the guileless and charming ‘Circus 1903’ stands apart

Circus 1903’s Queenie the Elephant.
Photo: Mark Turner Images / Courtesy

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages: Please direct your attention to the center of our town, where peak circus was achieved some time ago. We’ve got seven Cirque du Soleil productions (eight if you count the recently-acquired Blue Man Group franchise); Spiegelworld’s Absinthe and whatever that show’s producers are preparing for the Act at Palazzo. And oh yeah, an entire circus-themed hotel casino. If there’s a way to balance atop something or swing from something else, Las Vegas has mastered it. Thank you, and goodnight! Drive carefully.

Except that isn’t true. The reason we have so much circus in Vegas is that there’s really no limit on what you can do within that framework, from raunchy cabaret (the gone-too-soon Vegas Nocturne) to something more closely akin to a Broadway musical (The Beatles Love). And there’s yet another possibility, one that new Paris Las Vegas production Circus 1903 fulfills to absolute perfection: You can use the circus as an excuse to perform a … well, a circus.

Earnest, big-hearted and captivating, Circus 1903 takes the circus as gospel, giving you everything you could want of the proverbial big night under the big top. It’s got a family high-wire act, Los Lopez (Johan Lopez, Jonatan Lopez and Maria Jose Dominguez) performing death-defying deeds; a trio of acrobats (Artur Ivankovich, Ilya Kotenyov and Petter Vatermark) flinging each other aloft on a teeterboard; a rubber-bodied contortionist (Senayet Assefa Amara) bending herself into pretzels in the sideshow tents; and even a pair of “elephants,” masterfully realized by a team of puppeteers. In the midst of it all is Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson), whose effortless humor and avuncular charm keeps everything centered.

The only thing about the show that’s not traditional is its structure: In a nifty, meta twist, fully two-thirds of Circus 1903 takes place before the actual in-show “circus” begins. We see the roustabouts setting up the tent, then becoming distracted by their own acrobatics. Ringmaster Willy leads us through the sideshow, where a succession of cheesy, unimpressive acts leads to something truly astonishing. (There’s also one groaner of a dad joke in there, but Williamson sells it with panache.) And a quiet, lyrical scene of the “elephants” being fed and groomed is so beautifully realized that you completely lose yourself. In that moment, the line between childhood and adulthood is erased.

Speaking of: Kids are welcomed at Circus 1903, and they seem to love it. Williamson does an extended participation bit with several children from the audience, and there’s not a drop of cynicism in it. “The magic is inside you,” he tells one child, and the audience applauds, because we want to believe it. In our hearts, we’ve never stopped wanting to run away with the circus.

Circus 1903 Through December 31, Tuesday-Sunday, times vary, $49-$129. Paris Theater, 702-777-2782.

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