"We are scintillating and somewhat safe!" booms the tall man with the crystal ball on his staff. No kidding.
Between the sequins, the shadow puppets, the vaudeville and burlesque, "Big Top JoJo's Phenomenal Phantasmagoria" is a smorgasbord of spectacle. You walk into Excaliber's theatre space and are immediately buffeted by visions of scantily-clad sparkly girls gyrating on balconies, masked belly dancers, and adorable clowns who mob your table, vying for the honor of painting your portrait.
"I make rudimentary paintings," one clown confides. "So I figured – if only I could do it with my nose!" A few seconds later, the brush is jammed so far up that nostril you fear for his eyeball. And that's just the pre-show.
"Free Yer Freak!" say the Circus Banners. That's just what this sideshow does. The somewhat linear narrative of a freakishly tall boy who sets off in search of his lost dreams is split up and peppered with sideshow acts, featuring dangerous burlesque dancers, men who can fold themselves into tiny glass boxes, and clown acts. There are jugglers. Fire-eaters. Poi-spinners. Mermaids. Fanged puppets. Raggedy bald faeries on point shoes. Mysterious Cabaret singers who lure the ever-increasing carnival through magical curtains. Turtleboys. Tattooed men who walk on broken glass and lie on beds of nails ask audience members to walk on them.
At intermission, the audience is invited to mingle with the freaks and inspect the sideshows close-up. Food and drink is available for purchase from a menu. A festival atmosphere prevails.
If the journey of Big Top JoJo, "a boy who locked his dreams up tight," were the engine of this vehicle, it would be too full of goopy sentiment and poetically tangled exposition to run properly. However, "Phenomenal Phantasmagoria" needs no such engine. It is a clown car, propelled by the charm and talent of its ensemble.