Cheekily promoted as “The Story Behind the World’s Greatest Showman”, Storeyboard Entertainment and team are no doubt keen to attract the huge audiences that flocked to the Hugh Jackman led musical film, The Greatest Showman. As much as audiences would no doubt lap up the Pasek and Paul score on stage, Barnum: the Circus Musical came first, a 1980 Broadway musical exploring the life of showman P.T. Barnum.
Although Barnum was in many ways, a lousy person, it is easy for both musical works to focus on the glitz and glamour of the showbusiness life he inhabited. Just as The Greatest Showman features a contemporary cast and score, Barnum’s score and book are similar in tone to other shows of its time, drawing stylistic similarities with Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin and the bandleader device of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago.
It’s pretty clear that circus still sells, and it is the absolute highlight of this production. Barnum is a glorious show-reel for associate producers the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA), with mind-blowingly creative circus direction by Zebastian Hunter, perfectly executed by the ensemble comprising of multi-disciplinary circus artists and musical theatre performers. This team deliver a fresh energy that elevates what would otherwise be a thoroughly underwhelming show. Even with a revised book (Mark Bramble), Barnum’s character development and inconsistent structure are paper thin.
Director Tyran Parke’s overall concept is clear in what is chiefly a visual production. Dann Barber is clearly the designer to watch, with some of the finest set design seen on the Melbourne stage in years – completely unexpected given the Comedy Theatre is our smallest professional venue, and it’s a very limited run. Barber’s Big Top design contributes to the stage magic with an impressive catalogue of versatile of set pieces that conjure a multitude of settings and allow for numerous nail-biting tricks. Coupled with Barber’s costume design, this show is a visual feast.
The leading players are up against it with the aforementioned dodgy book and characterisation, and an ensemble who really deserve the final bow. Todd McKenney in the titular role is at his best when in full song and dance mode. His numerous ad libs and moments of direct address miss the mark more often than not, but then again, can he be blamed for trying to jazz up a blah book? Rachael Beck is wonderful and in fine voice as Charity Barnum, and Suzie Mathers a good fit as Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind. The two leading women do their best with incredibly two-dimensional roles. Kirby Burgess plays a “common man” Ringmaster with verve and well-placed caricature.
It is tricky to summarise this show – as a piece of musical theatre, it is long, dated and devoid of substance. As a piece of contemporary circus, it’s innovatively designed and exciting. Perhaps, like the titular character, you might want to flip a coin to make up your mind.
Photos: Jeff Busby
27 April - 2 June
The Comedy Theatre - Melbourne
Tickets: Click Here