The Circus came early to Chicago this year. Or at least Barnum, The Circus Musical did. A Broadway hit over thirty years ago, Barnum has not been seen in Chicago since 1991. Directed by L. Walter Stearns and starring veteran stage actor Gene Weygandt as the title character, this production is at its best when tapping into the magic of the circus. And well it should considering the amount of acrobats, clowns, jugglers, and plate spinners crowding the stage. When you have natural talents such as Jeremy Sonk spinning two actors around his neck like a propeller or Taylor Krasne-Wilton performing delicate aerial maneuvers without a net, you can be sure that you have something that will entertain ladies and gentleman as well as boy and girls of all ages.
At the same time, however, much of the play (really, much of the first act) appeared a bit too slow for children and a bit too corny to connect with adults. Cy Coleman (Music) and Michael Stewart’s (lyrics) collaboration walks a tightrope between uplifting marching riffs befitting a circus and dull, forgettable ballads that seemed designed to stomp out the fun. The action on stage also see-sawed with too much attention focused on the probably invented outside-of-marriage romance between Barnum and the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (played well by Summer Naomi Smart). The second act felt much more on target as Barnum moves with purpose to his date with destiny (a business partnership with a certain Mr. Bailey).
Like any circus worth its price of admission, there were some attractions worthy of your hard earned buck. Besides contributing to many of the on stage circus antics, Christian Libonati made for an entertaining Tom Thumb. Kevin McKillip also added to the fun with his deep ringmaster style narration that could probably quiet a room of a thousand children with one baritone decibel. And Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s scenic design included many well realized touches such as a flowing elephant (part curtain/ part puppet). I am also a sucker for a live band and the brass and cymbals delivered throughout the play. The ending grand finale was a winner too and, with flips, cartwheels, and juggles, showcased the best the play had to offer. My family and I left the theater with a smile on our face and not at all feeling like a sucker.
Bottom Line: Barnum, The Circus Musical is recommended for its embrace of circus fun and its strong second act. Barnum, The Circus Musical is playing at Mercury Theater (3745 N. Southport) through June 16th. Tickets range from $25 to $59 and can be purchased at MercuryTheaterChicago.com or by calling 773-325-1700. Deep discounts are available for groups of ten or more. For more theater reviews go to www.theaterinchicago.com.
Photos by Michael Brosilow