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Circus 1903 wows with nostalgia and elephant puppetry

The golden age of the circus lives again at this traveling show with no animals, only amazing humans.

A new circus is coming to town — and yes, there are elephants.

Circus 1903, coming to Madison Square Garden next month on its North American tour, combines Broadway-level production values and classic feats of daring skill into a show that takes the circus back to its golden age, while creating an experience that any animal rights advocate would enjoy.

April 5-16The Theater at Madison Square Garden4 Pennsylvania Plaza$39-$129, theateratmsg.com

“What we’ve done is put all the traditional elements back in the circus and remind people why they loved it in the first place,” says ringmaster David Williamson. “Our show is a theatrical experience, so we bring all the theater arts to bear to transport audiences to the circus under the big top in the year 1903.”

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Rather than relying on Cirque du Soleil-style glitz and technical wizardry, “Circus 1903” trades on the nostalgia of its setting at the height of the circus’ popularity. The family-friendly show starts with Williamson narrating a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the traveling circus life.

“You’ll see the circus wagon, people in their everyday clothes doing laundry and working on their props, moving lumber around, ‘rehearsing’ and getting ready for the tent to be raised,” he explains. Then, in a “giant, amazing moment,” the tent comes up, the ringmaster blows the whistle, and it’s on with the show.

What follows is a collection of world-class acts — the producers toured the globe for a year to cast the show — featuring a family of tightrope dancers, foot jugglers, rolla bolla, fire artists and more. And then there are the clever updates: Instead of traditional clowns in white makeup, there are comic acrobats. There’s a “fun, vampy” send-up of sideshows, all to lead up to the celebration of the human body that is Sosina Wogayehu, better known as the Elastic Dislocationist. “It’s a beautiful act, almost like a dance,” Williamson say. “She literally ties herself into knots and runs around her own body.”

And finally, of course, there are the elephants.

Among the reasons Ringling Bros. cited forending its 146-year runof the “Greatest Show on Earth” later this year is having to retire its elephants because of pressure from animal rights groups. The solution for “Circus 1903” was the creation of two life-size pachyderms bySignificant Object, the London-based puppet workshop that made the puppets for the stage production of “War Horse.” It takes three people to bring mother Queenie to life, and one for the “ornery little baby” Karanga.

“When I first saw them, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional reaction I would have,” he says. The puppeteers were rehearsing in London while the rest of the cast was putting the show together in Australia to premiere at the Sydney Opera House last winter. “When they finally hit the lights, hit the music, hit the mist, our hearts were in our throats — you forget they’re puppets immediately. You don’t even see the puppeteers, even when they’re in full view.”

In a way, taking live animals out of the show returns the focus to what Williamson sees as the real magic of it.

“The circus is aspirational,” he says. “You strip away all the razzle-dazzle, all the ballyhoo, and it comes down to the incredible talent of these awesome people.”

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