(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 3 March)
The 2013 Chichester Festival musical Barnum is off on its travels once more in the revised version by Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble. It’s a feast of clever stagecraft with the acrobats entertaining the audience at close quarters before the show starts and the auditorium festooned with showground lights.
Our “hero” is the eponymous mid-19th century showman PT Barnum, a man who could give any 21st century spin-doctor a very brisk run for his money (not to mention that of any gullible punters in the vicinity). Barnum knew that what he was purveying both across America and internationally was largely humbug, but why not?
The trouble with Barnum (the show) as well as with Barnum (the man) is that, if you strip away the excellent acrobats the staircased and galleried set, and the singing voices of Linzi Hateley as Chairy (Barnum’s long-suffering wife), Landi Oshinowo (Joice Heth and the blues singer) and Mikey Jay-Heath (Tom Thumb), there is very little left.
Brian Conley is likeable enough in the title role and milks the audience (almost in pantomime dame fashion) for every laugh he can elicit. Kimberly Blake’s Jenny Lind looks lovely but produced something nearer a screech than an authentic top note at the end of “Love makes such fools of us all”.
The plot is so episodic that, if you discount the song and dance elements, what remains is scarcely a skeleton. For my money, it all seems old-fashioned in the wrong sense. an Townsend directing the on-stage band controls his forces admirably and the sound balance is good. But I for one expected more of Barnum – and it just never materialised.
Barnum runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 14 March.