Bello Mania

Though his business card may read "America's Best Clown," roping Bello Nock in with giant shoes and tiny cars is selling him way, way short. The guy is a master, pulling off acrobatic feats with ease, and performing physical comedy with the precision of Chaplin and the cheeriness of Martin Short. And now, in the small but gorgeous New Victory Theater, audiences have never been closer to the great clown.

Bello's unique abilities are rooted in a long family history of performance. His parents, one Swiss and the other Italian, met under the big top. And Bello's daughter, Annaliese Nock, represents "eight generations of performing Nocks." A slideshow playing before the lights go down offers a thoughtful, and personal, tribute to this legacy.

But pictures and family history aside, this show is all about Bello. From the first bit, which has him dancing in a giant inflatable version of his costume, it's clear why Bello's name is on the marquee. He's fantastic. In my favorite bit, "I Like Bike," the clown struggles to keep his faulty bike in one piece, yet still rides it even after all but a few parts have fallen to the floor. It's hysterical, and an impressive display of physical comedy and timing, something we see far too little of from modern performers. But Bello's most distinct quality isn't his talent at riding tiny bikes, or firing imaginary arrows at balloons. It's his ability to stay deeply connected with his audience, even while hanging 40 feet above their heads. Becoming a star like Bello takes more than just raw talent and years of practice. Clearly, it's this effortless, engaging personality that has set him so far apart.

Joining Bello are show host Dave Cox and performer Zebulon Fricke. As Bello's hard-working assistant, Fricke walks a fine tight-rope, and can take a fake kick to the face with the best of them. Annalise is also featured, including a solo act in which she dangles high above from a giant ring. As her act closes, Bello is at the edge of the stage, sitting with a giant smile, appearing more as the proud father than outrageous clown. It's heartwarming, for a second. Then, his chair breaks apart, collapsing with a loud "bang." Daughter or no daughter, there's no upstaging Bello.

Bello Mania does lag in the second act, spending too much time on Bello's personal biography and audience participation. After all, we're not braving a March snowstorm to hear about Bello's impressive accolades, or to watch the kid in seat H2 play along onstage. We're there for Bello, which is exactly what we get at the end, as he pulls off the show's most death-defying feat, "Hang on for your LIGHT."

It's hard to imagine anyone, young or old, not having a wonderful time at Bello Mania. The show is funny, the acts impressive, and as framed by the historic New Victory Theater, as close to a true vaudeville experience as you'll ever find.