“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.