Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810 – 1891) was the master of smoke and mirrors; the ultimate flimflam man. Although often down on his luck and short of money, he always managed to find a way out. That had something to do with his vivid imagination and a lot more to do with his grounded wife, Charity. She stood by him through thick and thin … bailed him out and provided guidance when he needed it most. Barnum The Circus Musical is his story, his life told through dialogue and song, complete with circus artistry.
With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics from Michael Stewart and book by Mark Bramble, it debuted on Broadway in April 1980 and on the West End in June the following year. It first hit the Australian stage in Sydney in 1982, with Reg Livermore in the lead role. This new, reimagined Australian production is directed by Tyran Parke and choreographed by Kelly Aykers.
Todd McKenney is perfect for the lead role and didsn’t let me down. Far from it. He dominates the stage every scene he is in. He totally engages, at times speaking directly to the audience. He’s like a naughty school boy … and doesn’t he love it. Several times it appears he is ad libbing and he is so good at it you can’t tell whether he is or whether he just has the patter down so proficiently that he can make it appear like he is.
Rachael Beck is also impressive as his long-suffering wife. Her vocals are strong and rounded, her stagecraft impeccable. She makes her characterisation work. She is believable as Barnum’s counterpoint – the sensible one of the couple. With her pure voice, Suzie Mathers is cast as the Swedish opera singer and seductress Jenny Lind who helped revive Barnum’s fortunes. Kirby Burgess has pep in her step as the buoyant ringmaster, Akina Edmonds is Joice Heth, one of Barnum’s attractions as the oldest woman alive (161, if you don’t mind), while Joshua Reckless is cast as 25 inch tall “General” Tom Thumb.
Around them the circus performers are agile and energetic. Their tricks are more contained that that which we would find in modern circus, but spot on for the times depicted. After all, we are talking about the 19th century. They clown around, leap, toss and pivot, climb and tumble, juggle and perform feats of strength, do the splits and more. At one point even Todd McKenney takes to a version of the high-wire … for real.
The stage is brilliantly set up by Dann Barber, who is also responsible for the colourful and eclectic costumes. We are looking into the inside of a somewhat faded Big Top, with a few rows of tiered seating on either side. Two large poles dominate. Behind a balcony one floor up is the band.
Although Barnum undoubtedly led a colourful life, I thought the story – or at least the way it is told – was a little thin and there were a few flat patches, which I found particularly noticeable in the longer first act. Still, the performers – all of them – were excellent. They worked particularly well with the material they had, drawing as much out of it as they could. It is a show very much about amusement and boyish charm … about riding your luck and then riding it once more.
PT Barnum was not a man known for his restraint, not one to be contained … and I dare say neither is Todd McKenney, for ultimately he is the one who elevates Barnum The Circus Musical in a way few others could. It’s on at Comedy Theatre until 2 June 2019.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Melbourne International Arts Festival (various venues) – theatre reviews
- Marjorie Prime (Ensemble) – theatre review
- Containment (Directors of the Extraordinary) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.