On Stage: the circus comes to town

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By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

The Big Apple Circus

The Big Apple Circus, which is celebrating its 41st anniversary this year, up residency at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center (100 Station Avenue, Oaks, https://bigapplecircus.com) for a run now through June 16.

Many of the world’s greatest circus acts have performed under the Big Apple Circus Big Top. Each year, a new show with new attractions is created by many of New York’s most creative directors and designers.

The most exciting new thing about this year’s show is a new ringmaster — Stephanie Monseu.

Monseu, who once designed jewelry in New York City, will make her local debut leading the Big Apple Circus into the Philadelphia area — to guide audiences through an unforgettable array of mind-blowing, breathtaking, jaw-dropping, two-hour performances.

A veteran circus performer, Monseu is on her first national tour as Ringmaster with the Big Apple Circus, a show filled with outstanding female performers and so much more.

“This is a big circus,” said Monseu, during a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Peabody, Massachusetts.

“We have 25 artists and, in total, 80 people moving from place to place. We have a number of tents including the Big Top and reception tents. The Big Top holds 1,700 people and no seat is more than 50 feet from the ring.”

Growing up in Flushing, Queens, and Margaretville, New York, Monseu studied metalsmithing at FIT in the 1990s. While working as a waitress in Manhattan, she got her first taste of the circus. Keith Nelson, a fellow waiter and fire-eater, taught her how to do the same dangerous and dazzling sideshow stunt.

Monseu is a professional “variety artist,” counting among her skills circus mainstays like juggling, prop manipulation, clowning, physical comedy, and sideshow stunts like sword swallowing, fire eating, bed of nails, block-heading, ladder of swords, and broken glass walking. She is a veteran ringmaster for events and circuses, and her specialties include stilt walking, acrobalance on rolla bolla and globe, and high-wire motorcycle stunts and aerial acts.

“I’ve been in the circus business in New York for over 25 years,” said Monseu. “My very first exposure to circus performance came when a really cute guy I knew was doing juggling. I asked him to teach me how to eat fire. After a while, we started our own circus.

In 1994, she co-founded the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus with Keith Nelson. Their unique style combines elements of circus tradition, sideshow stunts, novelty amusements, and vaude-villainous variety into a spectacle for the 21st century.

The Cirkus’ roots go deep into the New York City underground transgressive performance art scene, and its style is deeply influenced by Nelson’s studies in anarchist theory and Stephanie Monseu’s background in visual arts and physical performance.

Originally created for mature audiences only, the Cirkus now entertains folks of all ages, and has grown into a far-reaching nonprofit arts organization educational and mentoring programs for youth, touring, and theatrical productions are the mainstays of Bindlestiff’s activities.

“I’ve known the people from Big Apple Circus for a while,” said Monseu. “It was only a matter of time until they were looking for a female ringmaster. I threw my hat in the ring and came aboard last August when they created a new show.”

When not performing with the Big Apple Circus as Ringmaster, Monseu practices her circus talents where she juggles, stilt walks, target and fancy bullwhip cracks, lasso spins, walks on glass, lays on a bed of nails, eats fire, performs on a trapeze, walks a high-wire and can sing.

In this edition of Big Apple Circus, Monseu will be joined in the ring by a multitude of fierce female-led acts – and more.

“We have Jenny Vidbell with her horses and dogs,” said Monseu. “Another great act is Emil Faltyny, who does a free-standing ladder balancing act. And Gamil the juggler is amazing. Gamil is super-fast.”

Other jaw-dropping acts are The Flying Tunizianis, a double-wide trapeze act showcasing seven fliers and two catchers in addition to the quadruple somersault byAmmed Tuniziani – a feat only successfully landed by 10 people in the world; “Desire of Flight,” a daring and balletic dual aerial straps act; and, for the first time in America, the gravity-defying horizontal juggler Victor Moiseev.

Audiences are blown away by performances by the “strongest mom in the world” Virginia Tuells and her husband Ihosvanys Perez. They preset “Duo Fusion,” a breathtaking acrobatic act that combines dance, strength, flexibility, and passion in which Tuells handles a majority of the lifts,

Other top-flight performers are Andréanne Quintal, whose team of performers bounce off the walls in her feisty trampoline act, and, of course, the clowns — MarkGindick and Adam Kuchler.

“I love the way the circus brings sport, artistic performance and people together,” said Monseu.

Video link for Big Apple Circus — https://youtu.be/M4Ah-5dk1PI.

The regular performance schedule is Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.; Saturdays at 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m., and Sundays at noon and 4 p.m. Ticket prices range from $20-$75.

If you’re in the mood for a show this weekend that is entertaining but not quite as energetic, consider the concert on May 24 at the World Café Live (3025 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 215-222-1400, www.worldcafelive.com) featuring Amy Ray and Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters.

Amy Ray

Ray is on the road touring in support of her new album, “Holler.” The album is a “Southern” album – an LP with an Americana vibe made by a Georgia native at a studio in North Carolina with top-flight musicians from the South.

“We cut the album in Asheville at Echo Mountain Studio,” said Ray, during a phone interview Tuesday morning from a tour stop in Alexandria, Virginia.

“It was all done analog – two-inch, 24-track analog. We cut it live to tape and then brought in horns live to tape. Then, we transferred it to digital – very high resolution so it’s super Hi-Fi. You have to be careful going from analog to digital. Brian Speiser, the guy who mixed it, is a real audiophile. He made the vinyl version sound really, really good.

“Brian is the sound guy for the Tedeschi Trucks band. We even had Derek Trucks play guitar on one of the songs on ‘Holler.” Brian produced my last record and this one too.”

Ray’s previous record, which is described as her “first Americana album,” was 2014’s “Goodnight Tender.” Her band features multi-instrumentalist Jeff Fielder on guitars, dobro, bass, and mandolin; Matt Smith on pedal steel, dobro, and guitar; Adrian Carter on fiddle and guitar; Kerry Brooks on upright bass and mandolin; Jim Brock on drums and percussion; and Dan Walker on keyboards.

According to Ray, “‘Holler’ was inspired by traditional country, Southern rock, mountain music, gospel and bluegrass. The songs tell stories of late nights, love, addiction, immigration, despair, honky-tonks, growing up in the South, touring for decades, being born in the midst of the civil rights movement, and the constant struggle to find balance in the life of a left-wing Southerner who loves Jesus, her homeland and its peoples.”

“This band has been together five years now – recording and touring,” said Ray. “With the band being together so long, it gave us more cohesion when we were recording the album. We could spread out a lot more. We have a lot of trust in each other.”

“Holler,” which features 14 new songs by Ray, was released on September 28, 2018 on Ray’s own label Daemon Records via the Compass Records Group. It also was released as a special double LP version, along with hi-res and MQA versions

Ray is still active as one-half of GRAMMY-winning folk duo Indigo Girls.

“We have a new record coming out in January,” said Ray. “We recorded it in England and we’re mixing it now.”

The Indigo Girls have been making music for decades. Ray and Emily Saliers became friends in elementary school in Decatur, Georgia and began performing together when they were in high school. When they were students at Emory University, they took on the name Indigo Girls.

Over the years, they established a reputation for being one of the best folk-rock acts in America. In 1987, they released their debut album “Strange Fire.” Almost three decades later, the ladies released their 14th album “One Lost Day.”

Amanda Platt

While Ray has been making music for almost four decades, Platt is just entering her second decade as a professional musician.

Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters is an Americana band based in Asheville, North Carolina.

The Honeycutters were put together in 2007 by Platt and former guitarist Peter James with their music based around Platt’s songwriting. They released their first studio album, “Irene,” in 2009, followed by “When Bitter Met Sweet” in 2012.

In 2015, The Honeycutters – Amanda Anne Platt (songwriting/rhythm guitar/lead vocal), Matt Smith (pedal steel, electric guitar), Rick Cooper (bass), Evan Martin (drums) — signed with Organic Records and released their third full-length studio album, “Me Oh My.” Their album, “On The Ropes,” was released in 2016 and their most recent studio album, “Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters,” was released in 2017.

“I’ve been writing songs as The Honeycutters since 2007,” said Platt, during a phone interview Monday from a tour stop in Annapolis, Maryland.

“The lineup stayed the same since then until this year. We had a lineup change when our drummer Josh Milligan left to go back to school. He was still with us when we made the live album.”

The live album is “Live at the Grey Eagle, which was officially released today (May 24). The Grey Eagle is an all-ages live venue in Asheville.

“We released a live album because we’re touring a lot and we didn’t have a new album,” said Platt. “We do have a lot of new songs I like to pepper into the set.

“We’ve recorded live shows with the band before but his was the first time we’ve done it intentionally for a release. It was recorded last November. There was a little extra pressure performing knowing that it was for a live recording. I felt nervous for the first few songs. We recorded two nights which was good. I was more relaxed the second night. The shows were great – hometown shows, and both were sold out. Making the stew list was kind of a challenge. We put a Facebook post-up and asked fans what they wanted to har. So, we played those songs, some of my favorites and a few new ones. The album has 15 songs.”

A few years ago, the bands changed its name from The Honeycutters to Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters.

According to Platt, “We switched things up a little. After four albums I’ve decided to step out and start using my own name. It’s something that a lot of people have encouraged me to do over the years, and I guess that 2017 just felt right.

“We’re keeping The Honeycutters too because we don’t want to confuse people…really, we’ve always been Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters. I think I’ve just gotten to a place where I feel comfortable enough to be in the spotlight.

“I always write all the songs. I just write on guitar. I definitely start out as a lyricist. I’ll write down some lyrics but then there has to be a story. When I start to write, it has to start with a kernel of emotion I’m feeling. Then, I think I end up distancing myself in the narrative.

“Songwriting – sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s difficult. I wait for the muse. I was extremely prolific through my twenties. I have a lot of songs written – maybe 80 that are written but not recorded.”

But those songs won’t pop up on the band’s next project.

“In July, we’re going to be recording a few holiday songs,” said Platt. “Then, I’m having a baby in the fall.”

Video link for Amanda Anne Platt — https://youtu.be/D9Es-81IdH4.

Video link for Amy Ray – https://youtu.be/vL93P8XTTF4.

The show at the World Café Live will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25.

Other upcoming shows at the World Café Live are the Smithereens with special guest vocalist Marshall Crenshaw on May 25 and Bobby McFerrin with Ranky Tanky on May 28 and 29.

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