This review also appears in Western Park Gazette
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Michael Stewart
Book by Mark Bramble
P T Barnum famously billed his own show as The Greatest Show on Earth and this revised production, beginning its UK tour at Curve, has aspirations in that direction.
Brian Conley is superb as Barnum, brimming over with charisma – an essential requirement if we are to believe Barnum could convince audiences of the 1800s to part with their money to see a mermaid or a 160 year old woman. Barnum was the king of spin, a ringmaster of rhetoric but, despite the humbug, audiences loved him for it and with some nice forays over the fourth wall at the start of the show together with a dazzling smile, Conley has us hooked.
This being a Cameron Mackintosh production the bar is already set high and Barnum does not disappoint. Acrobatics and juggling from the ensemble in the auditorium before curtain up is a thrilling way to begin and with the grandeur of Scott Pask’s set and Paul Wills’ costumes you’re drawn in to the magic; there may well be a sucker born every minute, as sung by Barnum early on, but it’s great fun.
Barnum is based on the life story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, showman, entrepreneur and America’s second millionaire. After creating Barnum’s American Museum in New York he went on to his Greatest Show on Earth and founded Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, featuring along the way such acts as General Tom Thumb, the Feejee Mermaid and Jumbo the Elephant. He dabbled in politics as Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut and was an outspoken critic of the slave trade. Barnum was no stranger to controversy and challenge, surviving two bankruptcies, numerous fires and legal battles. Attitudes towards his style of entertainment have certainly changed now but Barnum the musical doesn’t dwell on any possible accusations of exploitation.
There is so much that could have gone wrong with this production, relying as it does on tricks and gasp-inducing routines but set changes are slick, choreography whip-sharp and the whole cast fully committed to some spectacular stunts. However, nestled within these show-stoppers is the love story between Barnum and his wife Chairy, touchingly played by West End star Linzi Hateley. Mr and Mrs Barnum are two quite different characters but their playful sparring is warm and engaging.
The highlight is Barnum’s infamous tightrope walk at the end of Act One, heavy with metaphor as he tentatively walks the tightrope straight towards a risky business and personal relationship with singing star Jenny Lind. You can feel the audience willing Conley across, testament to his charm.
Curve’s stage is packed full of lithe and bendy performers, Conley’s own linguistic gymnastics are impressive in the high-speed Museum Song and the long ovation at the end of the show well-deserved.
So, do as the man says, come follow the band and see this show before Barnum’s circus heads off to a new city.
Image by Johan Perrson