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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
BARNUM
at Chichester Festival Theatre

THREE-RING CIRCUS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Christopher Fitzgerald, Tamsin Carroll and company/ Ph: Michael Le Poer Trench

The Chichester Festival is walking a tightrope with its revival of the 1980 musical Barnum and, like its leading man, who does likewise in the course of the show, barely makes its across the rope.

For starters, Barnum was never vintage Broadway. It has a half dozen catchy numbers by composer Cy Coleman, serviceable lyrics by Michael Stewart and a book by Mark Bramble that might euphemistically be described as sketchy.

Arguably the greatest showman of his time, PT Barnum – the self-styled prince of Humbug – began his remarkable career in 1835 by conning audiences into paying good money to see a 161-year-old woman he claimed was the infant George Washington's nurse. He went on to purchase John Scudder's American Museum in New York in which he featured a series of sensational attractions (some fake, some real) including a 25" midget he named Tom Thumb. And in 1850 he presented the soprano Jenny Lind (the Swedish Nightingale) to the American public. 

At age 60 he enjoyed his greatest success when he and James Bailey introduced the first three-ring circus to the world. He also found time to marry a woman who tempered his wild flights of imagination with a much-needed sense of reality. She even overlooked the brief affair he had with Jenny Lind during their sold-out six-month tour of America. 

It was a life full of variety and color (one of the better-known songs in the show is even called "The Colors of My Life"), and while Bramble's book touches on most of the salient facts, if you blinked you'd miss some of them. On one occasion we see Mrs Barnum pushing a baby carriage, but that's the only reference to the child we're given. Barnum's romance with Jenny Lind lasts about seven minutes of stage time, and after suddenly feeling tired, Mrs. Barnum dies from an unspecified illness.

While economy is the essence of good book writing in a musical, equally essential are character and plot development – both woefully absent from Barnum. What the show originally had going for it were two walloping central performances that camouflaged the flaws in the script.

On Broadway, the role of Barnum was created by Jim Dale; in the West End it was Michael Crawford. Both had bigger personalities than their material, and both radiated the single ingredient this show needs more than anything else: star quality. What Chichester offers is New York import Christopher Fitzgerald, who, though he works his butt off, simply lacks the necessary wattage to light up the 25-metre-high tent currently standing in for Chichester's usual theater, which is being refurbished.

Indeed, the venue couldn't be more appropriate. Such a pity, then, that director Timothy Sheader and choreographers Liam Steel and Andrew Wright fail to find the equivalent of Barnum's showmanship in their staging. It isn't until act two they have liftoff with three rousing routines ("Come Follow the Band," "Black and White" and "Join the Circus").

No reservations, however, about the show's featured women. Tamsin Carroll brings just the right quality of common sense and loyalty to Mrs. Barnum. Aretha Ayeh as the 161 year-old Joice Heth makes the most of her number "Thank God I'm Old." And Anna O'Byrne looks and sounds really terrific in the underwritten role of Jenny Lind. 

In the end, though, this disappointing revival lacks humbug, pizzazz and a star to glue its bits and pieces all together.

 


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