Barnum the Circus Musical – Theatre Review

It seems we’re no stranger to Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum these days with a certain movie musical being a big hit two years ago. So, it’s no wonder that the Storyboard Entertainment team put their heads together to bring Barnum the Circus Musical back to the stage in Australia. Starring Todd McKenney as Barnum, the revamped production of the 1980’s musical tells of the showman’s life through the traditional musical format, while also dazzling audiences with circus tricks.

Now we all know that P.T. Barnum had a way with words. In “There Is A Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute” we meet a more self-aware Barnum who knows his strengths and how to wield them to sway others. This version of Barnum is a more irresponsible, immature, erratic, selfish and I believe the more accurate version of how the man really was. Wanting to dive into his colouful dreams with his circus life, it seems opposites attract as Barnum’s wife, Charity (Cherry) Barnum played by Rachael Beck only wants her husband to stop fluffing around with his ‘humbug’ to get a safe and respectable regularly paying job so that he can not only be a responsible husband, but a good father. Clearly, he isn’t one because Cherry is the only character that keeps mentioning their children while Barnum’s head is up in the clouds, and the children are only mentioned in the first act, seemingly completely forgotten in the second act.

Most of the writing of this musical is weak. The pacing in the first act is slow with long lulls that made me restlessly wait for the characters to burst into song. Then in the second act, the narrative isn’t clear, moving too quickly without much description or guidance as to where and when (timeline wise) the characters were, losing me completely. This is through no fault of the production as they have the best actors and performers. The costuming, props and clever set design is also truly impressive, but it is the content itself that lets the production down.

For example, I found Suzie Mathers impressive and stunning in the short moments she is on stage as Jenny Lind. While I felt that the character not being able to speak English properly to begin with was very clever, I don’t think that the character was utalised as much as she could have been. Tom Thumb’s song “Bigger Isn’t Better” although fun and relatable, seems a bit wasted since we never really get to know the character at all apart from this random appearance and solo number which is clearly a filler for the next scene. I also felt Cherry was extremely one dimensional, she seems to be the only moral compass for Barnum who doesn’t appear to have a conscience of his own. And while this is fine, the entire time that she is on stage, Cherry doesn’t really seem to have a personality of her own apart from trying to keep her husband in line.

The positives in this show are the songs written by Cy Coleman, despite the book being weak, I rather enjoyed the song numbers and choreography. I also felt that the cast were outstanding, particularly Kirby Burgess as the Ringmaster. At first, I was confused as to why Barnum wasn’t the Ringmaster, but when I witnessed Burgess effortlessly change from narrator to different characters in the show Barnum interacts with, changing her posture and accent, I was thoroughly impressed. The circus tricks throughout the production were all extraordinary, but it was rather frustrating when the circus performers would finish a trick and the audience would applaud while the musical actors were still singing, drowning them out to the point where we couldn’t hear what they were saying. It’s not something that can be helped as the circus performers deserve to be applauded and often do their acts during the song numbers, but it was frustrating nonetheless.

Todd McKenney is the hero of Barnum the Circus Musical. He is great in the role, despite the character being a person you wouldn’t want ‘humbugging’ you, with McKenny‘s performance you really believe that Barnum has his own sense of ‘right’ and went in his own direction, a non-conformist to the monochromatic world he saw before him. As stated above however, with the weak writing McKenney was a lot more appealing when he broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to the audience.

Now, I’m not saying that this show is bad. It’s not. If anything, this production of Barnum the Circus Musical is entertaining, ambitious and will probably be the best version of this musical that you will ever see. The cast are all incredibly talented, the costuming is stunning, the music is good and the set and how the performers use it is brilliant. But a show can only be improved so much when the writing isn’t the greatest. If you are still curious, I highly recommend getting a ticket and supporting the hard work everyone involved has done, because how often can you say that you went to a musical and the circus at the same time? Barnum the Circus Musical will never be one of my favourites, but I’m grateful I got to witness this unique experience nonetheless.

Barnum the Circus Musical is currently playing at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne until June 2nd. For more information and tickets, visit: Photo by Jeff Busby.

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