Friday 3 May 2019

Barnum - Musical Review

What: Barnum The Circus Musical
When: 1 May - 2 June 2019
Where: Comedy Theatre
Book by: Mark Bramble
Music by: Cy Coleman
Lyrics by: Michael Stewart
Directed by: Tyran Parke
Musical direction by: Stephen Gray
Circus direction by: Zebastian Hunter
Performed by: Rachael Beck, John Barrett,  Embla Bishop, Kirby Burgess, John Clark, Greg Clarkson, Dean Cooper, Robbie Curtis, Akina Edmonds, Sarah Gray, Stephen Gray, Matthew Hamilton, Suzie Mathers, Stephen McDowell, Vanessa McGregor, Todd McKenney, William Meager, Karlee Misipeka, Gary Norman, Joshua Reckless, Roger Schmidli, Matthew Tubman, Ian Wilmot, and Tim Wilson
Choreography: Kelly Aykers
Design by: Dann Barber
Lighting by: Rachel Burke
Sound by: Michael Waters
Photo by Jeff Busby
Circus and musical theatre - the twin arts of stage spectacle - have come together in Barnum The Circus Musical playing at the Comedy Theatre this month. Storeyboard Entertainment has partnered with the National Institute of Circus Arts and Australian legendary performer Todd McKenney to bring to Melbourne a completely new production of the 1980's musical and is, from what I have read of past performances, one of the most successful stagings so far.

Barnum has always been criticised for it's poor book but a very clever Adrian Storey  and Parke went to Bramble and asked for some updates including a more modern post-#metoo sensibility. Whilst the structure is still very much like flicking through a moving images photo book, the story does hold together for the most part.

One significant change is the Ringmaster (Burgess) is cast as a woman but plays all the ad hoc male parts. An interesting decision but Burgess is more than up to the task and almost steals the show with her wonderful ability to play with voice and accent and physicality. She also starts the awe and spectacle with a graceful swan dive off the band mezzanine so we know from the beginning she is one to watch!

As a musical Barnum is really all about the songs rather than the story. These moving image snapshots track the life of P.T. Barnum (McKenney) from creation of the American Museum through to his decision to join James Bailey to create The Greatest Show On Earth (and invent the 3 ring circus). Just like any photo album there are intimate moments captured with his wife Charity (Beck) and his mythical affair with Jenny Lind (Mathers).  As well, there are the public moments such as the Museum opening, the launch of the Swedish Nightingale amongst his other most popular acts, and his run for Mayor of Bridgeport.

Swirling around all these great moments of Barnum's life is a circus troupe extraordinaire. As you can see in the photo the characters are so well drawn it is almost impossible to see the actors beneath but I will do my best to credit the right people. I should also say Barber's designs are impressively strong and I have never seen a show so perfectly suited to the heritage architecture of the Comedy Theatre (or so cleverly used by Parke) as in this show. It is pretty awesome how it all melds so seamlessly to bring us inside the 1880s.

Set in a little big top very reminiscent of our Speigeltents (although it may be truer to say Speigeltents mirror circus big tops...), acrobats fly and float and fling each other willy nilly, creating a storm of spectacle with Barnum standing - and singing - in stillness like the eye of the storm the man really was. His visions swirl around him and his story and he tries to fill his life with colour.

I was probably most impressed by the aerialists Gray and McGregor. Tiny little Gray was tossed and flung and flipped in ways which made her seem like a human pinball. McGregor demonstrated strength and grace in her aerial ring act and both were beautiful in their silks routine. What I really liked was, whilst none of the circus tricks were highest risk, what they did was technically perfect and matched the tone of the musical rather than standing out as something other.

In the end, the real strength of Barnum is the songs and the genius of this casting was an understanding of this. I have always tended (perhaps unfairly) to think of McKenney as a dancer who could sing but Barnum blows this belief out of the water. A big surprise is McKenney does no dancing at all (although he does walk the tight rope). Instead he gets to blow our mind with his incredible vocal talents which not only include pitch, power and range, but also lyrical dexterity. Do you remember the incredible lyrical gymnastics of Danny Kaye? Well McKenney is that good - which is lucky because Stewart does not give any leeway to whoever is brave enough to sing this part.

Beck demonstrates her unquestionable singing pedigree in 'Colours of My Life' across several reprises, and Mathers takes the audience to heavenly places with her classical arias which prove the one moment of truth to most of Barnum's humbugs. All of the singers are perfect and it is fair to say this production of Barnum does not put a foot wrong as a production.

It is not fair to criticise the production too harshly for flaws in the book and the latter part of the show, when Barnum takes on politics, has scary insight into politics in our time - especially whilst we are right in the middle of an election campaign and have suffered 10 years of very strange governance very full of it's own humbug.  I might suggest that Parke's direction and Burke's lighting are a bit pedestrian though.

The load very much seems to be carried by Barber and the acrobats to keep up the energy and pace but they are more than up to the task. I was also very impressed with Water's sound design. This show needs absolute clarity and that is what he gives us. The band are magnificent and I loved that when I looked up they all seemed to be having a good time.

Other moments of note include the transitions into Act 1 and Act 2. It is always a dreadful task trying to get audiences to settle. Parke uses a sound montage at the start of the show and a clever and funny clowning routine after interval and both work beautifully. They are like a theatrical prolonged "Shhhh!"

I guess what all these words of mine are saying is Barnum The Circus Musical is a great night out so get on down to the Comedy Theatre. It is fun, fanciful and fabulous with just enough contemporary commentary to have a reason to exist. And remember, noone else in the world has ever staged this particular version of the show yet!

4.5 Stars

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