×

U.K. Legit Review: ‘Barnum’

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

With:
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.

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Production: 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.

Creative: 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.

Cast: 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.

More Legit

  • Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant,

    Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant, Dies at 73

    Gregg Smith, a dancer, casting director and assistant choreographer who had a long association with director Kenny Ortega, has died. He was 73. Smith died on Jan. 1. The industry veteran worked as a performer in the national touring company of the musical “Hair” and in a Los Angeles production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He [...]

  • Frozen review musical

    Warmth and Humor Pervade Pantages Production of 'Frozen' the Musical

    In 2013, Disney’s “Frozen” hit screens like a 100 mile-per-hour snowball, sparking a pop cultural phenomenon in which little girls and boys pranced about dressed in Anna and Elsa and Olaf costumes while belting aloud “Let It Go,” Elsa’s feminist anthemic response to ice powers rendering her a societal outcast. The animated movie won two [...]

  • My Name Is Lucy Barton review

    'My Name is Lucy Barton': Theater Review

    Laura Linney is in love. Just watch the radiant expression on her face as she wraps her arms around the character of Lucy Barton, a role she played in two separate engagements at the Bridge Theater in London, and is now reprising on Broadway in “My Name is Lucy Barton.” The feeling is obviously mutual, [...]

  • 'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to

    'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to Air Weekly, Syndicate Nationally (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal” will become nationally syndicated, marking a first for a program about the Great White Way. Beginning in fall 2020, the monthly show will increase frequency to air weekly. The show is hosted and executive-produced by 12-time Emmy Award winner Tamsen Fadal, a news anchor at WPIX, the channel that initially [...]

  • Laura Linney My Name Is Lucy

    Listen: What Laura Linney Learns From Bad Shows

    For Laura Linney, every stage experience is a learning experience. “Even the bad ones!” she cheerfully declared on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Even the ones that are really bad, and I’ve been really bad in some things,” continued the Emmy winner, currently back on Broadway [...]

  • 'Betrayal' Star Zawe Ashton Signs With

    'Betrayal' Star Zawe Ashton Signs With CAA (EXCLUSIVE)

    Zawe Ashton has signed with CAA, Variety has learned. Most recently seen on Broadway in the hit revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betryal,” Ashton is the definition of a multi-hyphenate. In addition to being an in-demand actress, Ashton is a director, playwright and author. While earning critical raves for “Betrayal,” Ashton made her debut as a [...]

  • Michael Feinstein Kristin Chenoweth Sutton Foster

    Jerry Herman Memorial Set for Feb. 3 at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

    A memorial service for Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman will be held at 3 p.m. on Feb. 3 at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Michael Feinstein is producing the tribute, which will feature performances from a number of notable legit stars, including Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Sutton Foster, Kelli O’Hara, Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley. Angela [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content