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SAWDUST & SPANGLES, Powertap Productions and Prop Theatre, at the Firehouse. What’s most troubling about this ambitious account of 19th-century circus life is how close it comes to being great. Epic in scope and thrilling in concept, G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert’s semibiography of showman W.C. Coup’s rise from humble beginnings is beautifully animated by Powertap and Prop’s design team, who use puppetry, masks, and lush sets to convey both tawdry circus tents and the majestic Hippodrome in New York.

Alas, this is no Sawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman’s classic film. Failing to gracefully encompass their broad subject, the writers create a disjointed script concerned with telling the story quickly rather than well. Never fully developing the characters or achieving a consistent style, they frequently digress into superfluous musical numbers, jolts of narration, and odd historical details. Incidents and characters are introduced only to be discarded; conflicts arise but are resolved too quickly for their impact to register. The writers aim for a lofty poetry but attain it only on occasion.

Still, the subject is so rich and the production so well designed that the play never becomes dull: the designers and performers make you believe in a magical world of exotic animal acts, mysterious aquariums, and amazing tightrope walkers–but rarely in the people who inhabit it. The show’s sporadic pleasures nourish the eyes but not the soul. –Adam Langer