Circus time again!

Certain as the sun rising in the east, the Music Circus will start its season with a family show like Beauty and the Beast<i>.</i>

Certain as the sun rising in the east, the Music Circus will start its season with a family show like Beauty and the Beast.

Afternoon temperatures in the high 90s, the kids on summer vacation, and the lingering scent of gunpowder from Independence Day firecrackers lingering in your nostrils. You don’t even have to look at the calendar; it’s Music Circus time.

For the newly arrived (and the inexplicably uninitiated), Music Circus is a 55-year-old Sacramento tradition. The sponsoring group, now known as California Musical Theatre, takes over the theatrical complex at 1419 H Street. The seats literally come out of the Sacramento Theatre Company’s main room, and its bare floor is converted to a rehearsal space. Then, from early July through late August, it’s a steady rotation of big musicals, presented “in the round” on a stage encircled by 2,200 seats. And usually, most of those seats are full.

The shows are mounted right here in the River City and typically feature plenty of talent with Broadway experience, but not major celebrities. (In days of old, Music Circus occasionally featured personalities—including football star Joe Namath—but the producers ultimately realized they were better off hiring talent that could actually sing.)

Up until 2002, the shows were presented in a bona fide circus tent, which was laboriously erected and struck each summer. Matinees were unthinkable—too damned hot. Even the evenings could be toasty. I vividly recall sneaking a thermometer into the tent on one scorching night in 1996. I measured 95 degrees at showtime and then looked on in wonder as a bevy of actresses dressed head to toe as nuns for The Sound of Music danced about the stage while I sat motionless in my seat, soaking my shirt with sweat.

Ah, the glories of the past! With the opening of the Wells Fargo Pavilion in 2002, the Music Circus is now air-conditioned, and the series features Thursday and Saturday matinees.

Nonetheless, the Music Circus formula remains unchanged. The shows come in six varieties: There’s the annual family show, with half-priced tickets for children under 12 and a guaranteed mob scene at the soda concession. This year’s family show is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (July 5-17), making its first appearance at the circus for a two-week run. The official Disney touring production passed through town five years ago.

Then there’s the unfamiliar show. This year’s “new to the tent” offering is Once On This Island (August 2-7), a Caribbean-flavored musical from 1990, written by the team that later would earn fame for Ragtime and Seussical The Musical. You may notice that the Music Circus poobahs waited until local audiences cottoned to the later, better-known shows before they took a chance on this one.

The third category is the retro show that isn’t authentically old. This year, there are two. Crazy for You (July 26-31) is a Gershwin-driven show from the 1990s. It’s based on the 1930 Gershwin hit Girl Crazy but adapted for modern sensibilities. Grease (August 16-21) debuted in New York in 1972 and remains a frothy tribute to the 1950s.

Of course, there are the shows that Music Circus regulars know and respect but perhaps don’t wholeheartedly adore. This year, we have West Side Story (July 19-24, previously presented by Music Circus in 1960, 1963, 1968, 1981 and 1999) and Cabaret (August 9-14, previously performed in 1970, 1973, 1992 and 1998). Everyone agrees that both have great songs, but the musical-theater crowd tends to prefer happy endings over gangbangers and street violence or Berlin decadence with Nazis and sexual ambiguity.

There are a couple of standards missing from this year’s formula, like the Andrew Lloyd Webber show. The Music Circus stages one of the big man’s standards on an almost annual basis, but, mercifully, Sir Andrew—who hasn’t had a major hit in years—is taking the summer off in Sacramento. However, a touring production of his Bombay Dreams will come to the Broadway Series in May 2006, likewise sponsored by California Musical Theatre.

The “rock musical” (we use the term advisedly) is also absent this year. Last year, we had Footloose, tenuously based on a Kenny Loggins number from the 1980s. Like Webber, the rock musical is likely to return in 2006.

Finally, we have the famous standard that the audience loves and will flock to again and again. This year, it’s The King and I (August 23-28, previously done in 1956, 1958, 1960, 1964, 1967, 1970, 1976, 1980, 1985, 1994 and 2000). Rodgers and Hammerstein classics are the bread and butter of the Music Circus, and rightly so.

All of the Music Circus plays are glossy, professional productions with a big cast, lots of costumes and a pit band. The prices reflect that. Season-ticket plans run $197-$281. Shows start at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, with 2 p.m. matinees on Thursday and Saturday. Single tickets are $34-$49. Several shows are nearly sold out for their weeklong runs. Call (916) 557-1999 for ticket information.