Barnum Lacks Spectacle
By Geary Danihy
Playhouse on the Green’s decision to produce Barnum – The Musical may not have been the wisest, given the size of the theater and the budget available. The show, as currently produced, has a “poor cousin” feel to it,” and although, as the Playhouse’s press release for the show points out, “Bigger isn’t better,” there are certain aspects to this production that make it more side show than main event.
Leading the cast is Scott Ramsey as the Bridgeport impresario, and although Ramsey has all the moves and delivers flim-flam with a great deal of skill, his voice is more suited for ballads than for belting out the “big ones.” Hence, though his rendition of “The Colors of My Life,” is quite touching, and his duet (“I Like Your Style”) with Rebecca Barko, who plays Barnum’s wife, Charity, is engaging, he really can’t sell the big numbers like “Come Follow the Band” and “Join the Circus.” The underwhelming nature of these numbers is also the result of the production team’s choice of musicians or, rather, the instruments they play – there’s not a single blaring trumpet, crashing cymbal or tinkling glockenspiel to be heard – the woodwinds, bass, drums and keyboard (along with a flute that is somewhat tentative at times) played by the four musicians simply can’t create a sound exciting enough to support the bigger numbers.
This is not to say that there aren’t some fine moments in the show, many of which are created by Bob Filipowich as the Ringmaster, who has “smarm” down to a science and plays the role with a great deal of panache. Also of note is Michael Costantino’s turn as Tom Thumb and his sprightly rendition of “Bigger isn’t Better.” Equally engaging is Ginelle Nicolas’s Joice Heth, billed (and built up as) the oldest woman in the world who just happens to have been George Washington’s nanny. Her “Thank God I’m Old” number is nicely staged and a delight from start to finish.
The set, in bright reds and yellows, is somewhat minimal, but that’s not really a problem. What is a problem is that set designer Carl Tallent has placed two large, brightly colored blocks stage left and right that serve multiple functions (as tables and the base for Barnum’s New York City museum, to name just two). As functional as they are, they become impediments to the cast in the larger numbers, forcing them to weave awkwardly around them (and up onto stairs). Surely a way could have been found to strike these two blocks when necessary to allow director/choreographer Steven Smeltzer a little more room with which to work.
The creative team has made great efforts to engage the audience and create a mood. Actors in costume roam the foyer and orchestra prior to the start of the show offering to show audience members how to juggle or giving them the opportunity to toss plastic rings over a clown’s head. During the show, confetti falls and, in the final number, multi-colored chads explode into the air. The show’s heart is in the right place and there’s quite a lot of talent up there on the stage, but the overall impact is less than the sum of its parts, for Barnum fails, in the end, to create a spectacle, something that has less to do with size than with style and manner of presentation.
Barnum runs through Sunday, June 22. For tickets or more information call 866-811-4111 or go to www.playhouseonthegreen.org.
To learn what other critics think of this production or to see what is playing in theaters around Connecticut, go to www.ctcritics.org.