This new production of Barnum the Circus Musical directed by Tyran Parke is a worthy homage to the great 19th-century showman. Just as PT Barnum used colour and movement to get audiences excited about things that didn’t warrant their attention, this cast and crew manages to make an unremarkable musical entertaining. Todd McKenney’s strong performance in the title role, and an appealing set that showcases a constant parade of fun circus performance, conjure a show that Barnum probably would have considered a nice bit of ‘humbug’ – his term for “glittering appearances and novel expedients.”
Kirby Burgess, Todd McKenney and Suzie Mathers in Barnum the Circus Musical. Photo © Jim Lee
Barnum the Circus Musical made its debut on Broadway in 1980. Tellingly, the three Tony Awards it picked up were for design and performance, not the musical itself. Mark Bramble’s book presents Barnum’s sensational career as a series of plodding episodes: his museum-meets-sideshow burns down off-stage almost incidentally; his affair with star performer Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, seems like a very mild flirtation; his beloved wife’s death is suggested by this anti-humbug woman’s enigmatic exit through a curtain; and his political career, although partly illustrated by one of the musical’s best songs, Black and White, is a muddle.
Cy Coleman’s bouncy oompah music is only relieved by sentimental numbers with bland lyrics by Michael Stewart – though a tip of the hat to him for the fun, rapid rhymes of the Museum Song, and hats off to McKenney for delivering this tongue twister of a number with aplomb.
The show’s leading man is in good voice, has a few jokes with the audience that aren’t particularly funny but are delivered with endearing warmth, and although there’s little chance to show off his dancing prowess, McKenney does reveal a surprising circus skill in a show-stopping moment. It’s a relief to find that his interpretation of Barnum is nothing like the slick, almost sleazy promotional image of him seen around town for this production. His performance reveals Barnum as a slightly dishevelled huckster, a man with big ideas and ambitions who’s not afraid to stretch the truth but has a good heart.
The performers of Barnum the Circus Musical. Photo © Jim Lee
In the twee role of Barnum’s practical but loving wife Charity, Rachael Beck delivers a solid vocal and dramatic performance, while Kirby Burgess is a slick, sultry stand-out in the much more exciting role of the ringmaster – as well as numerous other minor parts, for which she capably slips through various accents. Suzie Mathers, looking luminous in a mane of blonde ringlets, reveals a strong, sparkling soprano as Jenny Lind, and has fun with a faux Swedish accent.
The ensemble is mostly made up of multi-talented circus performers directed by Zebastian Hunter. They sing and dance capably, but are mostly there for strong, skilful spectacle: juggling, counter-balanced bodies, riding high on a unicycle, aerial acrobatics and clowning. While it’s fairly standard contemporary circus stuff, these performers are limited by the confined space, which actually accentuates the spectacle.
Dann Barber’s set is fundamental to the circus performers’ success, and Barnum the Circus Musical’s overall visual appeal. The stage has been transformed into half of a vintage circus tent, with a balcony bandstand at the back, from beneath which an old-fashioned circus wagon regularly appears: a secondary little stage often used for musical numbers that illustrate Barnum’s genius for humbug. The costumes, also designed by Barber, nicely express 19th-century America, from Charity and Jenny’s gracious hooped gowns to the carnival folk’s tawdry glamour.
There’s a lot to like about this production, but sadly it’s difficult to like any of the hollow characters doing and saying little of note amid all that entertaining razzmatazz.
Barnum the Circus Musical is at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, until June 2