It’s brash. It’s bold. It’s untamed. It’s the chaos of merchandising that swallows visitors entering Madison Square Garden to see “FUNundrum!,” the new offering from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. While the show turns out to be the best the troupe has presented in years, to get to it you’ll have to fight through hawkers in the lobby, along the hallways and up and down the aisles, each insistent on selling you (or rather, your children) a reminder of an experience you haven’t yet had, with all the subtlety of an air horn blown into a megaphone.
Is the fight worth it? Yes. But it’s a shame it has to be fought.
With “FUNundrum!,” the troupe celebrates the 200th birthday of P. T. Barnum by emphasizing the old standards — a stocky strongman, joyful clowns and a spirited ringmaster — alongside modern flourishes like daredevil motorcyclists, a two-tiered trampoline and indoor fireworks. It’s a stellar mix, directed and choreographed with remarkable timing. With some 130 performers and plenty of animals, not a moment of the 2 hours and 10 minutes goes by without a chance to laugh or shriek or cheer.
While each act shines, most breathtaking is a pirate routine, featuring two teams whose members one by one spring each other into the air using oversize seesaws. Some land on another pirate’s shoulders, while others are launched wearing stilts, leading to thousands of simultaneous gasps from the audience. It’s set to an infectious live beat, and that program, as well as a team of wire walkers and a daring trapeze act, are all reminders of the unmatched power of live entertainment.
It takes nothing away from the cast, however, to wonder which executive approved such relentless selling of hand-held spinning lights ($22), snow cones in a collectible cup ($12); stuffed animals ($30) and countless other products at the beginning, middle and end of the circus, and even from the ring, when at intermission the audience is pitched a video game and directed to a Web site for still more attempts at a sale.
That barrage of marketing is especially disconcerting, since the performers themselves are so friendly. “FUNundrum!” opens an hour before start time, allowing ticket holders to meet the cheerful troupe on the floor and snap photos or watch additional skits close-up. Ultimately, that’s where the real memories are made.