Back in the 19th century (and in the early part of the 20th), bored youth sought to escape the confines of their small towns by running away and joining the circus—thanks to the touring shows promoted by sideshow entrepreneur Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810–1880). Operating on the premise that "there is a sucker born every minute," this self-described "Prince of Humbug " managed to fleece the American public with such oddities as the Feejee Mermaid; a man standing only 25 inches tall whom he called General Tom Thumb; the Oldest Woman in the World, Joyce Heth; and the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, among others. His particular brand of flimflam was especially attractive to hard-working, provincial people starved for novelty and excitement.
It is that love of novelty and excitement that animates the Barnum being performed by the Chatham Community Players as their final offering of the 2013-2014 theatrical season. With a book by Mark Bramble, lyrics by Michael Stewart and music by Cy Coleman, this musical graced the Broadway stage from 1980 to 1982, starring Jim Dale as Barnum and Glenn Close as his wife Charity (Chairy). It has never been revived in the United States since (although a film was made of it in 1986), nor has it been performed much, if at all, by community theaters. One glance at this production makes the reason clear.
Covering the years 1835–1880, Barnum recounts the rise of Phineas Taylor Barnum as he builds an empire of spectacle, still alive in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus that comes to Madison Square Garden each year. Against the wishes of his New England schoolteacher wife Chairy, Barnum rejects a job in a Bridgeport, Connecticut, clock factory in lieu of promoting his exhibits of sideshow freaks. As he rises, he builds Barnum's American Museum (right, “One Brick at a Time”); when that goes up on literal flames, he rebounds by becoming the manager of the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, whom he accompanies on tour, abandoning Chairy at home. Realizing that his wife is the true love of his life, he returns to Bridgeport, assumes a traditional job, runs for political office. Upon discovering that he has been humbugged by his own political party, he returns to his former calling at the urging of James A. Bailey to form the Barnum & Bailey Circus that toured the country and enticed those young people to run off and join the circus.
A musical about the circus has to present the circus, and that means physical tricks, acrobatics, clowns and magic—all the things one would expect to see at such a spectacle—posing a high hurdle for any director. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Jeffrey Fiorello has gathered a talented group of singers, dancers and circus-type performers to turn the little black box Chatham Playhouse into a rousing, exciting circus, no mean feat, that!
To the accompaniment of a five piece band, the actors in Barnum cavort around the small stage and sing and dance to a fare-thee-well. Christopher Abbott (right) is singularly terrific as Barnum, wise to what he's up to (he even names his different forms of humbug: marital, educational, for example) and sly, he commands the entire production with his agility, fine voice and great stage presence. He is complemented by Kathleen Campbell Jackson (below) as his wife Chairy, whose more somber esthetic clashes with his more flamboyant ("The Colors of My Life). But her longing for more traditional life does not make her character a stick-in-the-mud; Jackson's looks and beautiful smile make manifest the reasons Barnum loves and respects her so much. It doesn't hurt that her magnificent voice soars to the rafters, especially in her duets with Abbott.
Michael Healy is an imperious Ringmaster, calling the shots as the times and venues change; his magic tricks before the show entrance the audience. The rest of the cast performs as an ensemble. Standouts include Ray Guy as General Tom Thumb; although he's more than two feet tall, Guy's lithe body and strong voice convince us, if not Barnum, that "Bigger Isn't Better." Sarah Kuhns has great fun as Jenny Lind, singing in Swedish and learning enough English to wow the American audience. Shannon Ludlum really rocks the blues in "Black and White," in addition to appearing as a clown and dancer. The rest of the large cast provides ample and able support as a variety of minor characters while the ensemble of dancers, acrobats, jugglers and plate/hat twirlers keep the spectacle energy high as they perform Megan Ferentinos' energetic and inventive choreography.
Richard Hennessy's lighting is spot on (pun intended); Joe Devico's sound and Tish Lum's props and set decoration round out Andrea Sickler's scenic artistry to transport us to the circus. Fran Harrison is to be complimented for her lush and very appropriately garish costume design, along with Raven Dunbar and Jessica Phelan for their wigs and make-up. (Left, “Come Follow the Band”)
Barnum celebrates "the noble art of humbug" involved in a "fight to the finish" with truth, as PT himself puts it. Kudos to Chatham Community Players for undertaking this little-performed piece of musical theater. So come on out and "join the circus like you wanted to when you were a kid," but this time, don't forget to bring the kids.
Barnum will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through May 24. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.
P.S. As youngsters, my two daughters saw the show on Broadway and loved it. On the telephone this morning, the younger one sang “The Museum Song” from start to finish, very fast, which is quite a feat since it is a real tongue-twister (“Not a lotta Roman terracotta, livin’ lava from the flanks of Etna….”)! I was amazed that she remembered the lyrics!