Tuesday, April 30, 2013

'Barnum' Not Just For Suckers, Even If Not Quite the Greatest Show on Earth -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart
Directed by L. Walter Stearns
Mercury Theater, Chicago
Thru June 16

I wanted to see the rarely staged musical, Barnum, largely for nostalgic reasons.

Not because I had previously seen a production of "the circus musical" about Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, which bowed on Broadway in 1980.

And not due to any overt sentimentality for the circus that in part bears Barnum's name.

Strange as it may sound, I just distinctly remember the original cast recording being an album that resided in the record cabinet at my family's home.

It isn't even that I listened to it much, if at all. Maybe due to its title, the record was at the very front of my dad's collection of Broadway albums, or perhaps the bright yellow cover heralding star Jim Dale was that powerfully iconic. But for whatever weird reason, when I noted that the Mercury Theater was staging the show--as part of the venue's recent foray into self-producing musicals--it brought a reminiscense of inherent interest.

Of course, there were more direct reasons for my wanting to see Barnum, not that it ever takes much for me to explore a musical I've yet to witness.

- Though the musical had a strong initial Broadway run--854 performances--and was nominated for the 1980 Tony (it lost to Evita, deservingly), I have never noted it being performed at any level, anywhere since I started heavily paying interest to musical theater around 1999.

- The show has at least a couple top notch songs that I fondly recalled and recently rediscovered through Spotify: "There Is A Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute" and "Come Follow the Band."

- The Mercury's robust, largely-Equity cast stars three terrific local performers I've seen and liked in several other shows: Gene Weygandt, Cory Goodrich and Summer Naomi Smart.

- I applaud the Mercury's seemingly risky decision to start producing its own musicals, rather than simply renting out the venue.

- And while Chris Jones' review in the Tribune wasn't completely glowing, it is positive and champions the efforts of director L. Walter Stearns and his crew to shoehorn a show that includes circus acts into a relatively small space.

So between wanting to support an ambitious effort, warmly remembering an old record album and being able to get a half-price ticket on Goldstar (the show has also been on HotTix), last Saturday I wandered down to the Mercury on Southport, just steps from the Music Box Theater.

Though I could have done without the clowns climbing over audience members pre-show--the one on stilts in the lobby was pretty cool--Barnum turned out to be a highly enjoyable and admirable production of a good but not quite fantastic musical.

Weygandt, who was the Wizard of Oz in the long-running Chicago production of Wicked and stellar in shows such as Working and Snapshots, among others, is perfectly cast as P.T. Barnum and terrific throughout.

In watching him cover Barnum's life as an impresario--largely before he connected with James Anthony Bailey late in life--it was hard to imagine anyone being much better suited for the leading role.

Weygant was well-sung and lest anyone--OK, me--wonder whether a performer can be quite as good at a Saturday matinee following a show the night before and preceding an evening performance, he and the rest of the cast consistently made me feel that this was the one and only performance they were giving.

Goodrich plays Barnum's ever-tolerant but exasperated wife, Chairy, and their relationship forms the closest thing to a contextual storyline aside from Mark Bramble's book being a cursory biography of the showman's life from the 1830s through the 1880s.

And while the ravishing Smart is onstage throughout alongside the circus/sideshow troupe, she is also featured as Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer Barnum promoted in America. This allows her to demonstrate her lovely voice on "Love Makes Fools of Us All."

While the three stars are impressive, so too are the circus performers, including clowns, acrobats and ones embodying Tom Thumb, the world's smallest man (Christian Libonati) and Joyce Heth, the world's oldest lady (Donica Lynn).

Between the acrobatics, biographical overview, strong performances and a some terrific songs by the legendary composer Cy Coleman (he also wrote Sweet Charity, City of Angels, The Will Rogers Follies and other musicals) and lyricist Michael Stewart, Barnum makes for a rather pleasing 135 minutes and is well-worth recommending.

Especially, because of hummable tunes like "There's A Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute," "Come Follow The Band," "Bigger Isn't Better," "Out There" and "The Colors of My Life," I think Barnum outshines the in-Chicago-on-its-way-to Broadway Big Fish and the recently-here Catch Me If You Can.

All this said, in viewing Barnum for the first time, I never felt I was watching a @@@@@, truly top-tier musical.

Not every song was a rock-solid winner and the biographical synopsis of P.T. Barnum was a bit slight and sketchy at parts.

So while excellent, I wouldn't quite declare Barnum "must see" for those without any sentimental connection.

If you can get to the Mercury and support this impressive big-top undertaking, particularly with half-price tickets, I'm certain you'll find plenty to enjoy.

But, re: the famous slogan of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, you may not find it quite the greatest show on Earth.

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