From left, Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson stands by as star seeker Paulo Dos Santos looks through a magic telescope at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show “Out of this World.” Dos Santos learned to ice skate for his role in this tour. (Courtesy of Victoria Blackwell)
The self-proclaimed “Greatest Show on Earth,” which began 141 years ago in Wisconsin, plans to bring new and old circus elements with its “Out of this World” tour Thursday at the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center.
“Its a circus space odyssey. It’s good versus evil. It has all those wonderful elements that always draws people’s attention,” said Johnathan Lee Iverson, ringmaster for Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey. “Dynamic sets that really point to the action going on in space. It’s suspenseful. It’s comedy. It’s thrilling. We have this dramatic star seeker Paulo who probes the galaxy looking for talent.”
Iverson’s seventh tour will be very theatrical, he promised. Retired longtime favorites, Asian elephants, will be absent following their final circus performance May 1, but a menagerie of animals from kangaroos to tigers will appear as well as — from air to ice — acrobats, clowns, villainy, heroes, skaters, the Torres family of motorcycle stunt riders and more.
“The heart of it is people at their core love to see themselves transcending, and a circus gives that,” Iverson said. “That’s what the circus presents. People are flying, talking to animals. Animals are talking back. People are contorting their bodies beyond the human imagination ... People love stories. They love miracles ... We’re joy merchants.”
This tour the joy isn’t just for the families watching the intergalactic show. Iverson’s 11-year-old son, Matthew, is playing a young version of his father in his circus debut.
“He’s doing wonderfully,” his father said. “I was more surprised that it was something he wanted to do or that he even had a desire to do. He’s very excited about it at getting the opportunity … His first job is to work at ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ I’m very proud of him and my daughter.”
Iverson’s family and those of other performers cross the nation in “the world’s largest privately owned train,” which he said “is like a neighborhood on rails.”
“It’s a family affair. We work, play, and travel together,” Iverson said. “My wife is the production manager of the show. We have a school and nursery that cares for the children and educates them as their parents are at work. Our eldest is working also. He has double duty — school and work … He understands how seriously we take our work.”
Iverson is no stranger to youthful performance. At age 11, he began seven years of singing with the Boys Choir of Harlem, eventually as lead tenor. The choral group brought him on stage at Luciano Pavarotti’s Concert in Central Park, Broadway, and indirectly to the circus.
“It was pressed upon me that the show wanted a singing ringmaster and I just happened to be available” after graduating from the University of Hartford in 1998. “I was in a pool of 30 other applicants but it worked out for me. The singing is very much a part of the entire presentation.”
Iverson has also performed in several off-Broadway productions including “Carnival,” “Showboat,” “The Magic Flute” and “Dreamgirls” as well as in commercials and voice acting. He also writes as a freelance journalist. But Iverson is appreciative of the unique balance his circus life offers him.
“I’m really proud of the fact that I get to make a living while having a life,” he said. “What can be better to travel work and play with my family all day every day. The reality is what are we toiling away for anyway? For those we love the most. I have the opportunity to do that. To have that relationship and watch them grow … Right now I’m the richest man in show business.”
The circus has also become interwoven into the lives of families who never step foot onto the train.
For one Florida family, attending “became a tradition because her son was autistic and did not speak a single word until he finished the Ringling Brothers show and as a result … they make their way to every show. Every time we’re in town they’re coming. We service the imagination; we lift spirits. We give you liberty to indulge in your innocence again, and that’s what we’re most proud of in this show. With this show you can just be.”
Iverson doesn’t believe anyone could be disappointed with a show like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.
“Of course you want to see the circus,” he said. “It’s like trying to entice people, ‘Don’t you want to go to Heaven?’ … We’re always evolving, (but) what you can expect is the greatest show on earth.”
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presents “Out of this World” will be at Selland Arena, 700 M St., at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from a $13 balcony seat to $65 for the front row. Keep up with Iverson’s circus adventures online at www.bigtopvoice.com or on Twitter as @Big TopVoice.