By Nicola Bennett
P.T. Barnum - a name that brings to mind a vision of circus tops and ringmasters, soaring acrobats and farfetched headliners. The arrival of Barnum: the Circus Musical to the city of Melbourne is an energetic drop of colour and sparkle, with a Broadway run in its past and a local cast ready to bring new life to Barnum’s story. Under the direction of Tyran Parke, Todd McKenney leads this ensemble through Barnum’s early days as a dreamer and perpetuator of circus “humbug”, as he strives to bring the world the showstopping spectacles that he knows audiences crave. Barnum’s well meaning penchant for the ridiculous brings both the rags and the riches of this story, as the production carries us through his tumultuous rise to the top of the circus industry.
Todd McKenney waltzes back to the Australian stage as the show’s titular character, P.T. Barnum. McKenney brings an apparent effortlessness to much of the production, demonstrating the polish of many years spent on Australia’s centre stages. McKenny’s portrayal is that of a dreamer and risk taker who puts everything on the line, to the point where the line of what should not be gambled is also thrown into the ring for good measure. There is heart and quality in McKenney’s performance, and with his own off-script commentary he sculpts the role as his own. He delivers well vocally, easing into Cy Coleman’s musical stylings comfortably and handling Musical Director Stephen Gray’s quick tempo with flair.
Additional kudos is due to McKenney for his commitment to the world of circus performance in this role, climaxing into a moment of tightrope walking that had the audience holding its collective breath. One could argue that the inclusion of this stunt causes a rupture in the show’s momentum - the audience is suddenly hyper aware that they are in fact watching Todd McKenney, and not P.T. Barnum, proceeding delicately across the suspended wire. The show is unique in this acrobatic focus yet feels somewhat stretched at times, as though it has overcommitted to so many skill demands and now must work harder to make it appear effortless for the audience.
It is the whirlwind of varied female performers that truly takes the stage by storm in this performance. It is empowering to see the stage driven by multiple female leads, particularly in a story historically set in a time when women would have been seen as lesser members of their society. Despite being the show’s namesake, this version of Barnum’s world is ultimately shaped by the women in it and their influence over his choices. Charity Barnum is the dedicated wife that has the front row seat to Barnum’s colourful world, played in this production by the established Rachael Beck. The role bounces between supportive and scathing, sometimes edging towards an almost sitcom-esque caricature of the trademark scolding wife to her husband’s loveable larikan. Beck fortunately brings a maturity to this role who harnesses the character demands well, as it would conceivably be a much more challenging portrayal with a less experienced performer at the helm. Suzie Mathers radiates as the opera singer Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale that pulls Barnum’s show and heart in new directions. The role is relatively small given the overall length of the production, however Mathers makes an immediate impact and contributes another strong female role to the production.
Acknowledgement must also go to the outstanding Kirby Burgess, whose nerve and flawless execution as the ringmaster is truly the show’s stand out performer. Her versatility of playing multiple characters with rapid transitions between different accents and physicalities is an exhibition of the breadth of her talent and a credit to her. Vocally strong and simply vibrant, Burgess possesses the alluring sophistication of Cabaret’s M.C. and the cool attitude of Chicago’s Velma, a recipe that delivers a captivating treat for the audience.
The dance phases of the performance are reliable in their delivery, leaving much of the physical ‘wow’ factor to the highly skilled acrobatic and circus acts from the cast. The intense physicality that their ensemble cast delivers is a genuine highlight throughout the show in terms of entertainment value, with juggling, group acrobatics and aerial work delivered well. For a viewer accustomed to the traditional tempo of musical theatre and a storyline that moves at a clear and consistent pace, this feature of the show may sit a tad uncomfortably. The acts do not greatly contribute anything directly to the storyline of the show and instead sometimes feel like a bonus feature thrown in to dazzle us (which it certainly does). Nevertheless, the heights and feats accomplished on that stage are truly deserving of their applause and cheers, which they received in spades at this performance.
The set design is elaborate yet functional, easily manipulated by the cast and crew while on stage depending on the scene’s demands. The backdrop’s “big-top” style adds to the theatricality and whimsy of Barnum’s shows, placing us in his world of colour and wonder directly. The tiered seating on stage is a clever feature that adds to this sense of observation, as the narration of Barnum’s life is yet another of his “performances”, observed directly from that seating by other cast members. Due to the shape of the theatre and some design features, some off-stage activity could be seen from the audience which detracts from the overall illusion in moments; however, the towering structure is a clever visual metaphor for Barnum’s vision and empire that he builds from the ground up.
This production steps up to contend with the reputation of one of the most successful musical movies in recent memory. That is no mean feat and those involved should be commended for setting their sights so high where such inevitable comparison remains. Whether the show achieves the same sense of grandeur and universal love as its cinematic cousin remains unlikely. However, what the production does achieve is constructing a world away from our own for a night, which offers an escape for audiences full of the colour, humbug and hoodlum of which Barnum would have been proud.
Barnum: The Circus Musical is now playing at the Comedy Theatre for a strictly limited season.
Photo Credits: Jeff Busby and Jim Lee
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.