Chicago Theater Review: BARNUM (Mercury Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 5, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Famed impresario P.T. Barnum banked on one cynical truth: No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. The undisputed master of the “noble art of humbug,” Barnum grew rich by providing the gullible, sensation-seeking public an inexhaustible series of “Unparalleled Attractions Never Before Seen,” many sheer flimflam, bombast, blarney, tomfoolery, malarkey, razzle-Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of BARNUM, Mercury Theater Chicagodazzle, bunkum and also hokum. He could get overcrowding gawkers to depart his American Museum simply by sending them flocking to see “The Egress”—somehow he knew his customers would not understand that as “The Exit.”

Barnum’s first attraction was Joice Heth, allegedly the world’s oldest woman at 160 years of age and the nurse to George Washington (in fact, she was a black woman who Barnum got snookered into acquiring). Later and truer sensations were opera chanteuse Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” the famed midget “General” Tom Thumb, the “Feejee” mermaid, Chang and Eng the Siamese twins, and Jumbo the elephant. His trade secret was success in excess. The phrase he coined to embody this concept—“There is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute”—becomes the rollicking opening number in Cy Coleman’s Barnum, a splendiferous celebration of sheer showbiz chicanery. All of the cynicism in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago is latent in this 1980 stem winder of a jubilee.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of BARNUM, Mercury Theater ChicagoFor many years Barnum’s museum of curiosities was a New York tourist mecca until it burned down (another exercise in extremity). After a brief stint as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut and an unsuccessful Senate campaign (he was ahead of his time on abolition and women’s rights), Barnum returned to his more honest confidence tricks, transforming his “museums on wheels” into Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth,” complete with three rings, sideshow, menagerie, grand parades and two-locomotive circus train. If hype and spin had a father and mother, Barnum was both.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of BARNUM, Mercury Theater ChicagoNow an ebullient and gorgeous Mercury Theater revival by ringmaster L. Walter Stearns, Coleman’s jaunty “circus musical” Barnum (book by Mark Bramble and lyrics by Michael Stewart) traces the colorful career of this shameless charlatan, his ill-fated museum, his abortive political career, his ruinous sojourn as a Bridgeport clock maker, his more successful job as a grandiloquent lecturer, and his apotheosis in 1880 as the nation’s King of the Midway. Throughout his frenetic career Barnum’s idealistic and often exasperated wife, Charity (a.k.a. “Chairy”), endures his “schemes and dreams” and wishes that he’d settle for the same black and white world that everyone else sees. But, no, he “wants to give the whole world a paint job.” Cirque du Soleil invented nothing—they just took away the animal acts.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of BARNUM, Mercury Theater ChicagoReceiving its own fine paint job, Stearns’ rambunctious staging, set in Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s vintage big top, is a riot of tumbling clowns, jugglers, trapeze artists, tight-rope walkers, unicyclists, stilt-walkers, illusionists, and tumblers, effortlessly entertaining as they change scenes or dance up a storm to Brenda Didier and Andrew Waters’ contagious choreography. Not only will you want to “Join the Circus,” you’ll want to run away to join the stage.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of BARNUM, Mercury Theater ChicagoSet against the Penrods’ gaudy but weathered striped tent, and illuminated by Jason Epperson with gorgeous splashes of color, each stage of Barnum’s life is treated like an act in a busy center ring, replete with Coleman’s delicious meld of ragtime and Dixieland euphoria. “Thank God I’m Old” is a terrific cake-walk sung by Donica Lynn (as the aged Joice Heth) and hoofed by the ensemble as if they just discovered dance. “Museum Song” is Barnum’s spirited patter song describing the bizarre exhibits. “Join the Circus” (a rip-off of “I’m A Brass Band” from Coleman’s Sweet Charity) is a tuneful hymn to sawdust. “Brick by Brick” features the chorus building the museum with a “bucket brigade” of bricks. Finally, “There is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute” feels as timely today as it was over a century ago.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of BARNUM, Mercury Theater ChicagoIn the daunting title role (almost always on stage, he must sing, act, balance on two shoulders, and juggle), Chicago favorite Gene Weygandt makes this boyish Barnum likable and, despite the hoopla, even gentle; he takes us into all his tricks for which we forgive him everything. Cory Goodrich is radiant as all-suffering Chairy, but she could use a bit more edge in the marital squabbles. Kevin McKillip vigorously depicts Barnum’s partners. Clever cameos come from Summer Naomi Smart as Jenny Lind and Christian Libonati as Tom Thumb (“Bigger Isn’t Better”). No matter their ages, the ensemble consists entirely of veteran troupers. Wrigleyville now has a stunt-filled circus to rival the Cubs.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of BARNUM, Mercury Theater Chicagophotos by Michael Brosilow

Mercury Theater Chicago in Chicago
scheduled to end on June 16, 2013
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