An all too rare independent musical theatre production, the new Australian staging of Barnum sees Todd McKenney embrace the chance to play iconic huckster P. T. Barnum.
The current season benefits from the spotlight that 2017 movie hit The Greatest Showman shone on Mr Barnum while simultaneously being outshone by the glittering spectacle of the modern Hollywood creation. Coming so soon after the motion picture, the effect of watching the stage production is akin to watching The Sound of Music on stage and yearning for the alps of Salzburg.
Adding to the challenge is the hokey nature of the show. Despite its marvellously melodic Cy Coleman score, the musical’s simple structure has been left behind in the new millennium, in which shows such as Hairsprayand Hamilton deftly integrate music and storytelling, and sidestep sentimentality with a knowing wink.
The staging handsomely fills the stage height of the often-neglected Comedy Theatre, setting the tone for a nostalgic, rose-tinted journey. Designer Dann Barber fills the soaring, weathered circus tent with plenty of authentic paraphernalia that bring atmosphere and a touch of circus magic to the story. Most impressive is a central circus caravan with a pop-out stage that is re-set to showcase various attractions curated by Barnum.
Emerging director Tyran Parke has previously demonstrated his insight and intelligence, proving here that he can capably handle a larger scale production. Given that one of his key strengths is highlighting the emotional undercurrents of a work, Parke is somewhat hamstrung here by the slender, superficial nature of Mark Bramble’s book. In a characteristically clever touch, Parke replaces the male ringmaster with a female performer who also portrays a great many featured characters.
In this key ringmaster role, Parke is blessed to have the dazzling talent of Kirby Burgess. Looking spectacular in dark purple velvet with gold trim, Burgess gives her most memorable musical theatreperformance to date, incorporating aerial acrobatic stunts, myriad accents and physical characterisations, and dynamite vocals, all performed with highly polished flair. This breakout performance brings a high degree of anticipation towards Burgess’ next stage appearance, whatever that might be.
While the setting leaves little central stage space, choreographer Kelly Aykers keeps energy high, working closely with circus director Zebastian Hunter to incorporate the various talents of the cast members. Circus feats are well calibrated across the evening, leaving some spectacle in reserve for climactic number “Join the Circus.” On opening night, several of the acrobatic stunts were out of synchronisation with Burgess’ introductions, resulting in applause overlapping dialogue; this will surely be fine tuned as audience reaction is incorporated into the timing.
Given the focus on circus stunts from the ensemble, the quality of vocals, especially harmonies, is very high. On keyboard, music director Stephen Gray leads nine other musicians in a jaunty rendition of the delightfully catchy score.
Rachael Beck makes a welcome return to the mainstream musical theatre stage as Charity Barnum, long suffering wife of P. T. Barnum. In excellent voice, Beck’s singing is a pleasure to hear. Sitting somewhere between sympathetic and forbidding, Beck’s characterisation of Mrs Barnum does not quite reach the full impact of the role, missing the tetchy edge of a sternly intimidating matriarch with a hard-won heart of gold.
Suzie Mathers delivers delightful soprano vocals as Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind. In his professional debut, Joshua Reckless exhibits a fine singing voice as Tom Thumb.
McKenney sings the large title role with ease, maintaining an ever-twinkling sparkle in his eye. Direct interaction with the audience came close to disrupting the character and flow on opening night; this aspect will hopefully be judged carefully as the season progresses. Top marks to McKenney for successfully navigating his way across the high wire on opening night (this puts him streets ahead of the abysmal effort I was unlucky enough to see off-West End in London last year)
Musical theatre fans who seek the comfort of nostalgia and sentimentality will be sure to enjoy Barnum. Setting aside difficulties with the dated material, the independent production should be a source of great pride.
Barnum plays at Comedy Theatre, Melbourne until 2 June 2019.
Photos: #1, #3 Jim Lee; #2, #4, #5, #6 Jeff Busby