Barnum is a wonderful musical, full of excitement, joy, and smashing tunes. It requires a true star performance to create and keep flowing the magical energy which suspends disbelief and ensures the audience is thrilled and engaged. This production boasts a tip-top ensemble, some real stars amongst their number, compelling female leads and superb musical support. But it lacks a central performance of style, wit and versatility. Consequently, it can do nothing but fall flat. Sadly.
The Cy Coleman (Music), Michael Stewart (Lyrics) and Mark Bramble (Book) musical juggling act, Barnum, had a triumphant time on Broadway in 1980 (with Jim Dale in the lead role), on the West End in 1981 (with Michael Crawford) and in Chichester in 2013 (with Christopher Fitzgerald). A new production, directed by Gordon Greenberg, is now playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre. It is not a triumph.
In casting Marcus Brigstocke as Barnum, the notion must have been that the audience would always be comprised of those suckers “born every minute”, the ones Phineas Taylor Barnum fleeced in exchange for hocus-pocus, malarkey and genuine baloney. Because, alas, Brigstocke is no showman. Charm does not radiate from him, he evinces little, if any, magnetism, can barely hold a tune, and while he can pull off the odd conjuring trick, the high-wire act necessary to make the central character irresistible is quite beyond him.
Brigstocke is amiable, a bit like a dowdy performing pony, but it’s difficult to like his style, perceive the colours of his life, or believe that he could inspire anyone to follow his band. He is more bland leader than circus maestro. Given that the memory of Fitzgerald’s superb take on the character is still fresh, it’s hard to see why Greenberg turned to Brigstocke when there are talents such as Richard Fleeshman, Julian Ovenden, Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley or Matthew Malthouse (to name but some of the obvious possibilities) working in London.
Where there should be a firecracker, Brigstocke is only a damp squib. And without a truly star performance in the title role, Barnum just can’t work it’s magic.
This is so despite there being a lot of talent otherwise employed in the production. Chris Walker’s orchestrations are less than ideal but Alex Parker’s musical direction is first class. Ensemble singing is excellent, with melody, harmony and diction all given great treatment. Gregory Clarke’s sound design is not always sympathetic but mostly works well in the intimate space. The band is gleefully rhythmic, soaring and softly supportive as needed. Parker’s feel for the music is excellent.
Paul Farnsworth has applied real ingenuity to the set, and there is an undoubted circus feel to the setting. His costumes for the ensemble were, for the most part, underwear of sorts, but when they got the chance to strut in actually colourful clothes, the vibrancy of the look matched the vibrancy of the score. Was it really necessary to dress Chairy in black and white?
Harry Francis is simply wonderful as General Tom Thumb and his number is the true highlight of the first Act. He has energy and charisma for days, dances spectacularly well, and performs with endless enthusiasm. In a variety of roles, all different and well defined, Danny Collins, also a superb dancer, excels.
Celine Schoenmaker is a perfect Jenny Lind, pretty as a picture, with a delightfully funny accent and a truly glorious soprano voice. It is easy to see her as a Swedish nightingale; far less easy to see why she would have a dalliance with the quite gormless Brigstocke Barnum.
The ensemble is packed with talented performers. Philip Marriott is masculine movement personified and Kelsey Jameson proves a dazzling exponent of fire-breathing dexterity. Dominic Owen is quite marvellous as the Ringmaster, exhibiting effortlessly the kind of energy Brigstocke should exude.
It is difficult to understand why The Museum Song remains in this production: Brigstocke cannot sing it with the tunefulness and agility it requires. It is a showpiece number for someone with mastery over patter; whatever else he may be, Brigstocke is not a master of patter. Equally unfathomable is why a song cut from the original score, So Little Time, has been restored when Brigstocke cannot sing it as it needs to be sung.
Laura Pitt-Pulford, one of the most versatile female talents working in musical theatre in London, seems slightly miscast as Chairy. Her voice is truly more suited to Jenny Lind and the lower register that Chairy relies upon is not as strong as it ought to be. Still, she is a performer of total commitment and all-consuming grace, and she works very hard to make the partnership between her character and Brigstocke’s wan Barnum work.
She sings The Colours Of My Life exquisitely and totally compensates for Brigstocke’s lacklustre delivery in the duet, I Like Your Style. Neither the staging not the tempo works in her favour for the ebullient One Brick At A Time, but she delivers what is asked of her with professional skill. Hers is the most rounded character in the production, despite the shortcomings she is forced to cope with in Brigstocke. She brings warmth where otherwise there is none.
There is a lot to like, too, in Rebecca Howell’s acrobatic choreography and Scott Maidment’s circus touches all excite in the right way. Chris Fisher and Chris Cox ensure some nice touches of stage magic and Brigstocke seems most at home there. But the set-piece of Barnum walking the tight rope has little power as the size of the auditorium limits the degree of difficulty – and hence the reward – when, and here, if, the journey is accomplished without a fall.
Philip Gladwell does very fine and very effective work with the lighting, managing evocative hues as well as properly reflecting the mood of a scene as it should be, though perhaps not as it is.
The Menier Chocolate Factory has a enviable track record in world-class revivals of musicals, ones that transfer to the West End and Broadway and win many accolades. This Barnum is not in that league. So many elements here bode well, although Greenberg’s direction lacks a signature stylish punch, but nothing can overcome the miscasting of Brigstocke.
One droll Ali Hakim in concert does not a virtuoso musical theatre star make.