Keeping the Greatest Show on Earth worthy of its name is a 24/7 obsession for Nicole Feld, whose latest incarnation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus – a magic-centric version of the Big Top called "Zing Zang Zoom" -- will be looking to wow children of all ages throughout its two-week run at Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena.
"That's what keeps me up at night," says Feld, whose family has been putting together the circus and other traveling entertainment extravaganzas (Disney On Ice, Disney Live!) for three generations. "Everything we do is about challenging ourselves, pushing ourselves to the limit and coming up with new ways of wowing and mesmerizing kids and their families."
For "Zing Zang Zoom," one of three versions of the circus Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have traveling concurrently throughout the U.S., Feld has spearheaded a show that's as much about magic and illusion as it is about clowns and trapeze artists. There's a vanishing elephant, people walking on the ceiling, a clown morphing into a tiger.
"We're not making bunny rabbits appear and things like that, it's not traditional magic," Feld promises. "The show becomes more surprising as you go along. You go, ‘Oh my God, how did they do that?' about 100 times throughout the show."
It's not like the old days, Feld says, where it was enough to have a bunch of clowns climb out of an impossibly tiny car, or trapeze artists fly through the air with the greatest of ease, or elephants march around the ring in formation. Audiences don't wow as easily as they used to.
"Kids are really plugged in today," says Feld, who has been with the circus since 2001. "They see lots of stuff, they see these movies in 3D like ‘Avatar.' They see these incredible animated films, with special effects. They have a lot of great video games that they play with. They're smart and they're savvy, they've been exposed to a lot."
The answer, she says, is to up the ante every year, give kids something they absolutely can't see at home or in the movie theaters.
"There's no place you can go and see what we can show you," Feld says. "Where else are they going to see 10 elephants? There's no substitute for live entertainment."
Still, there are ways in which this very much remains your father's circus. It is, after all, the 139th edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, so there's definitely a tradition to uphold. And for Feld, it literally is her father's circus – and her grandfather's, for that matter.
Legendary producer Irvin Feld purchased Ringling Bros. in 1967; his son, Kenneth, took over the family business, Feld Entertainment, after Irvin's death in 1984. Nicole is the eldest of Kenneth's three daughters, all of whom are connected to the circus – middle sister Alana, in fact, worked with Nicole in devising the version of Ringling Bros. that will be playing Baltimore next year, a tribute to legendary showman P.T. Barnum called "Barnum's Funundrum."
So, of course, there will be plenty of clowns at 1st Mariner Arena through April 18, along with elephants and trapeze artists and a ringmaster. The show, after all, promises fun for all ages – even if the emphasis is determinedly on the younger side.
"What we do is about blending the traditional with the contemporary," says Nicole Feld. "For audiences, you're satisfying the needs of the parents, who have nostalgia. But most of all, we're making kids happy – and kids don't have nostalgia."