A long, slowly moving line of parents and children stretched down the sidewalk on Hank Aaron Drive, snaking into a big red-and-yellow tent in the parking lot across from Georgia State Stadium. One kid peered up at the UniverSoul Circus big top and wondered aloud: “What’s in there?”
The child would soon find out what kind of pulsating lights, sights and sounds were “in there,” including but not limited to: performers doing the limbo under a flaming bar on the lowest rung, a five-person pyramid clomping around on horseback and dogs in dresses obediently walking on their hind legs.
So, an easier question to answer might be what isn’t in there. The nonstop, nearly three-hour production doesn’t let up for a moment, squeezing attention-grabbing acts into every possible minute. Even intermission invites guests to take camel rides or pose with Fresh the Clowns.
On a recent Sunday evening, the entertainment began with a casual pre-show performance from pop and R&B singer Michael Star and didn’t relinquish until the very end, when ringleader Daniel “Lucky” Malatsi, a South African native turned Atlanta resident, asked young ones in the audience to pledge that they will love those who are different from them.
Inclusiveness has been a mainstay for the traveling circus since its inception 25 years ago, as concert promoter Cedric Walker developed the circus to celebrate African-American culture and fill a void in black family entertainment. The show debuted with a 10-day run in the parking lot of the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1994.
The production is based in Atlanta, and there’s a special feeling attached to that, like when a major band plays in its hometown. But it’s much bigger than a local show, with the ever-present high-energy music, colorful costumes and rhythmic dance moves contributing to the show’s global feel. Audience members are informed that performers came from Chile, Mongolia, Cuba, West Africa, United States, all over.
The show’s first half would have been satisfying in itself, but it was essentially a warmup for what came after the too-long intermission. Riders from the Flatout Freestyle group flew through the air doing seemingly impossible tricks with their motorcycles. Later, four caged tigers appeared as part of a magic show. And for the grand finale, two elephants sauntered into the ring. A woman rode atop the bigger one, and the enormous animals did tricks such as posing on pedestals or rolling onto their sides.
The inclusion of exotic animals is a controversial one, as circuses face tighter regulations and protests from would-be customers and animal rights groups, such as PETA. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus saw a major decline in ticket sales after retiring the elephants in May 2016 and closed last year; Big Apple Circus, which is in Alpharetta through Feb. 25, maintains a “no wild or exotic animals” policy.
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Unlike some circuses that feel planned down to a tee, part of UniverSoul’s charm comes from the unchoreographed and laid-back vibe. The photographer and clown who squeezed down the tight aisles during the show, taking pictures with guests to come back a short time later selling the photos for $10, could have been either employees or hustling entrepreneurs. The audience is anything but an afterthought at the intense party, competing in dance-offs and occasionally getting playfully roasted by the cast.
During a recent performance, guests were clearly captivated by the impressive acts that took place before them from the moment they took their seats. Hours later, as everyone filed out and realized they’d have to scamper back to their cars through the rain that started up, no one seemed to mind.
Through March 11. $20-$40. Old Turner Field Gold Parking Lot, 755 Hank Aaron Drive SW, Atlanta. Also, March 14-18 at Gwinnett Place Mall, 2100 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth. 1-800-745-3000, www.universoulcircus.com.