U.K. Legit Review: ‘Barnum’

U.K. Legit Review: 'Barnum'

Cameron Mackintosh's retooled version of the musical is all flash, no substance

Barnum,” the story of the legendary showman, takes place within the circus for which the title character became famous. Acrobatic choreography energizes Cy Coleman’s all-the-fun-of-the-fair tunes, but the show’s many set-pieces are introduced by a voiceover accompanying actors who manipulate a ringmaster’s suit. Through no fault of human dynamo Christopher Fitzgerald jumping, juggling, joking, beaming and busting a gut as Phineas T. Barnum, that shiny empty suit is a metaphor for the show. Cameron Mackintosh has made an expensive bid to make spectacle respectable but the gamble hasn’t paid off.

The title role was an award-magnet for multi-skilled leading men – Jim Dale and Michael Crawford in the original hit Broadway and London runs respectively – but there’s a reason that a major production has barely surfaced since. The show itself underscores the difference between “theatrical” and “dramatic.” Splashy and flashy, it is; tense and exciting, it ain’t. The book redefines the word “schematic.”

For this new production, Mackintosh has, together with original writer Mark Bramble, revised the book. Yet whatever changes have been made, the core problem remains. Barnum narrates set-ups to key moments in his life which are then played out in spoken scenes so flimsy it’s near impossible to care about either him or the other wafer-thin characters.

Aside from exceedingly short-lived moments of disappointment, determinedly upbeat Phineas deals solely in unstoppable energy. The only room for real engagement could come with the to-and-fro between him and his, wife Chairy (Tamsin Carroll). But their scenes are accorded so little stage time and anchoring detail that they merely state their positions (she’s long-suffering, he’s egocentric but boyish), so there’s no development for an audience to hold on to.

The clearest example is in his relationship with Jenny “The Swedish Nightingale” Lind (Anna O’Byrne). Swathed in Paul Wills’ fur and figure-hugging gowns, she flirts with him upon her arrival in the penultimate scene of the first act. He promptly dispatches his wife to do his accounts and ends the act by going off with Jenny. At the opening of the second act, we discover him leaving Jenny. Their six-month affair takes place in the intermission.

To cover the lack of developing drama, helmer Timothy Sheader and co-director/choreographer Liam Steel put the pedal to the floor with activity driven by William David Brohn’s scintillating arrangements for the first-rate 14-piece band, ranging from leaping piccolo and percussion to five punchy brass players. Their musical acrobatics are matched by the exuberant, unflagging company, who tumble and hurl themselves up and down Scott Pask’s symmetrical, period-style gilded stairways on either side of a plush red curtain overlooking the circus ring.

When not sliding down ropes and shimmying up ladders, they’re tossing colorful props with near-reckless abandon, their energy — and much of the show’s tone throughout — controlled by lighting designer Paule Constable’s command of spotlights and her atmospheric use of color from circus red to “the purple glow of indigo,” as one of Michael Stewart’s lyrics puts it.

Yet the admirable stage energy grows repetitive. Inventive though the choreography is, it lacks cumulative power. The creative team knows how to put a button on a number with sound, light and physical gesture combining to win applause, but you find yourself longing for a number to signal, and build to, a climax that would lift audiences out of their seats.

Ultimately, the production’s dilemma is summed up by Fitzgerald’s tightrope walk, a bold and impressive feat. But musicals should be about audiences thrilling to the achievement, not admiring the actor’s effort and the amount of rehearsal it took to get there.

With almost all A-grade musicals having been restaged in living memory, producers seeking to revive a hit are now forced to head further down the list. This revival is, in one sense, a perfect fit in the giant, purpose-built tent for Chichester’s summer season. But a move into the West End will expose its shortcomings, and with the Tony-winning revamp of “Pippin” already in Broadway’s millionaire’s club, the Gotham prospects for this seriously flawed circus-based tuner look slim.

U.K. Legit Review: 'Barnum'

Theater in the Tent, Chichester Festival Theater; 1,400 seats £45, $69 top. Opened, reviewed, July 24, 2013. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.


A Chichester Festival Theater in association with Cameron Mackintosh presentation of a musical in two acts, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, book by Mark Bramble in a revised version by Mackintosh and Bramble.


Directed by Timothy Sheader. Co-directed and choreographed by Liam Steel. Co-choreographed by Andrew Wright. Musical direction by Adam Rowe. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Paul Wills; lighting, Paule Constable; sound, Mick Potter; orchestrations, William David Brohn; musical supervision, Stephen Brooker; production stage manager, Lorna Cobbold.


Christopher Fitzgerald, Tamsin Carroll, Anna O’Byrne, Jack North, Rachael Archer, Aretha Ayeh, Jacquie Biggs, Nick Butcher, Sophie Camble, Jon-Scott Clark, Leon Cooke, Stefan Dermendjiev, Faith-Louise Francis, Chris Gage, A C Garcia, Trina Hill, Jack Horner, Erin Jameson, Jasmine Kerr, Mitch Leow, James O’Connell, Michaela O’Connor, Max Parker, Tom Scanlon, Lucie-Mae Sumner, Robert Tregoning.

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  1. Squingey says:

    couldn’t agree more- it felt under rehearsed and incredibly sloppy in places. The circus was incredibly underwhelming and poorly delivered. I appreciate that they are dancers first but that means even less excuse for having bad form.

    • C Mahoney says:

      The show is not trying to be Cirque Du Soleil but whilst it isn’t, many of its performers are professional aerialists that have worked with the likes of Cirque and a like. Yes dancers have trained and do aerial in the show but i can only applaud them for what they have achieved. I agree that there is not a significant amount of aerial included in this production but having watched the show i believe it most certainly is not sloppy and was not poorly delivered and none of the professional aerialists have bad form…. but you are entitled to your opinion as am i……..

      • Squingey says:

        I agree – I wasn’t expecting Cirque du Soleil, I was however expecting a depiction of the classic age of american circus. Sadly i could not buy it. I wanted to desperately. My point should be clarified even further. The circus work needs more time and training to polish it and make it to the standard that will satisfy every member of the audience. The review makes an interesting point that Pipin is soon to come to town this show will struggle to compete with the high standard from performers who’s previous employment include, cirque, 7 fingers of the hand and c!rca. I appreciate it is a show just out of previews and changing constantly hopefully it will improve as i would love to see this show do well. I remember the standard of the Peter Duncan production in the 90’s, which was far above this one. I am reliably told that isn’t a sniff on the Crawford or Dale version. We have an incredible circus arts base in the UK and I feel that it has not been drawn on enough to make this production shine.

  2. Michael Marchant says:

    Interesting review. We thought it was an outstanding production with superb performances by all. Playing to a packed house on a Thursday evening, how is it that this production “hasn’t paid off”?

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