For a show that touts “the noble art of humbug,” the musical “Barnum,” now at the Mercury Theater, is remarkably free of humbug. Refreshingly straightforward, it seeks simply to entertain. As the show’s namesake, the 19th century impresario P.T. Barnum, once said, “I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting them and pleasing them.” “Barnum” accomplishes that quite nicely, thanks to the tuneful music of Cy Coleman and lyrics by Michael Stewart, with the likable Gene Weygandt in the starring role and Cory Goodrich well cast as Barnum’s wife, Charity.
The circus begins in the lobby as the costumed performers kibitz in the crowd of theatergoers lined up for free bags of tasty popcorn. Before those performers make their way to the stage, one may even take a seat next to you in the Mercury Theater’s intimate 290-seat house. One of the strengths of this production, directed by L. Walter Stearns with musical direction by Eugene Dizon, is that it uses the Mercury’s small space to its advantage, playing with scale in creative ways.
After all, “Barnum” premiered as a big Broadway show in 1980. And P.T. Barnum’s name will forever be associated with over-the-top three-ring circuses — even though most of the musical takes place in the years that led up to those extravaganzas, a time when Barnum developed small variety troupes and museums of curiosities. So how to fit Jumbo the elephant onto the Mercury’s modest stage or to showcase tiny Tom Thumb?
The production, with clever scenic design by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, addresses the issue of scale effectively by keeping things relative. Tom Thumb first appears as a gracefully manipulated marionette before being embodied by Christian Libonati, whose stature is dwarfed by flanking performers on stilts. On the opposite end of the scale, Jumbo’s enormous head unfurls as a swath of gray silk, suggesting a body larger than the theater itself.
All the performers, many of them Equity players, do their jobs capably, singing, dancing and often juggling, with some impressive acrobatics at the finale. Standing out are Weygandt and Goodrich, both with wonderful voices, as well as Donica Lynn as The Oldest Woman Alive and Summer Naomi Smart in the key role of Jenny Lind.
In 1850 the real P.T. Barnum paid Lind, a.k.a. the Swedish Nightingale, the then unheard of sum of $1,000 a night to perform throughout America. Lind, famous for her clear soprano voice and her devout character, used the money to endow Swedish charities. But in the musical version, Lind becomes something of a manipulative vixen, luring Barnum away from his loyal wife. This cooked-up conflict was a miscalculation on the part of book writer Mark Bramble, and it becomes even less believable when the conflict abruptly disappears after intermission. It is the show’s major weakness. Other attempts to inject story — or at least history — into the show are more successful. The real P.T. Barnum was a complex character: not only an entertainer, Barnum was an abolitionist, a temperance speaker and the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn.
But in a musical like Barnum, it’s okay for story to take a backseat to songs like “The Colors of My Life” and “Come Follow the Band,” well sung and backed up by a sextet of sprightly instrumentalists led by Dizon. After all, the audience is there to see the circus.
“Barnum, The Circus Musical”
Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago
Tickets: $25 – $59; (773) 325-1700 or www.mercurytheaterchicago.com
Through June 16, 2013
2 hours 10 minutes
Dining tip: two terrific pre-theater dining options are Deleece, with an entrance off the Mercury’s lobby, and Tango Sur, a BYOB Argentine grill right up the street.
Photos: Michael Brosilow