Festival Theatre, Chichester
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Michael Stewart
Book by Mark Bramble
In a Revised Version by Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble
Directed by Timothy Sheader
This review was first published in The Public Reviews.
There has rarely been a venue more site specific than the sumptuous Big Top that Chichester Festival Theatre have erected to stage their 2013 season’s flagship show, Barnum, the Coleman and Stewart take on America’s 19th century circus legend who came up with The Greatest Show On Earth.
The tent is stylish, air conditioned and comfortable. A pre-show read of the thoughtfully designed programme finds praise heaped upon producer (and co-reviser of the book) Cameron Mackintosh and numerous references to Jim Dale who created the role on Broadway in 1980 (though strangely, for such a thoroughly historical essay by book writer Mark Bramble, no mention of Michael Crawford who was to premiere the role in London one year later). So before the lights go down, expectations are set to high.
The opening movements of both acts are spine-tingling with suggestions of spectacle along with company work that is superb. These wow moments however turn out to be rare and short lived. Leading man Christopher Fitzgerald is an American actor of excellent drama pedigree and gifted with extraordinary credentials in movement and circus abilities that include the famous tightrope walk that closes the first half. But as a musical theatre Leading Man he struggles. His voice, albeit melodic and tuneful lacks punch and presence and fails to expand to fill the cavernous tent. In Museum Song, arguably one of the toughest lyrical tongue twisters penned, speeding up scarily through the stanzas, the final verse written to be sung at ridiculous speed has Fitgerald blurring, slurring and crashing his words. His character has a line in the song Black And White “Nobody does show-business better than me”. Sadly, not here and not now. Whilst that adage could even recently have been applied to Mackintosh, the legendary producer who certainly knows what makes for a stunning image has apparently lost his casting mojo. Technical improvements are required too. Sat in Row U, some big-number lyrics are barely audible, whilst the lighting plots often leave dancing members of the ensemble in virtual darkness.
Tamsin Carroll is an adequate Chairy Barnum in perhaps one of the weakest roles for a female lead in the canon, though Aretha Ayeh’s Joice Heth and Anna O’Byrne’s Jenny Lind both deliver performances that are as vocally magnificent as they are entertaining to watch. It’s a shame that both their cameos are so modest. Credit too to Adam Rowe’s 15 piece band, heavy on the brass, whose work is a treat throughout.
The real star of this show though is the company. Sheader together with co-choreographers Liam Steel and Andrew Wright have extracted brilliance in the ensemble’s dance and movement. The footwork is impressive with an amazing routine in Thank God I’m Old and a finale that dazzles with circus skills and flying people. It would have been lovely to have seen more circus themed direction throughout, especially during the tedious dialogues between Barnum and Chairy that cry out for more pizazz.
Mackintosh is unquestionably one of the world’s greatest showmen, but on this showing he’s humbugged the good people of Chichester.