Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart book by Mark Bramble
Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark St, London SE1 1RU
By Jarlath O'Connell
If you're taking on the lead in the musical Barnum a prerequisite is that you have mastered walking (a low) tightrope. If not, it makes about much sense to do it as taking up sky diving when you've got serious vertigo. Here, at the Menier hit factory, the popular comedian and panel show regular Marcus Brigstocke fails to walk it three times and one honestly wonders why he puts himself through it. His casting, as the great showman P T Barnum who dominated showbiz in the mid-19th century US, was no doubt because his fame will draw the fans, but while he's his personable self, it does the material no favors and is a disservice to the very talented company which director Gordon Greenberg has surrounded him with. It means a long overdue revival in London of this great 1980 show has been somewhat hobbled.
Coleman, best known for Sweet Charity gives us a characteristically vivacious, and often Rag-infused, score and while Mark Bramble's book is slight, at least it doesn't sag. Bramble's decision to set the show in a circus was inspired because PT Barnum was never off duty as a Showman.
The lead here must have the charisma and the manic energy of a Jim Dale, or a Michael Crawford who originated the role. Whether he was promoting freaks, opera singers or even political campaigns, Barnum's success was because he 'Dreamed Big' and was incorrigible, and most likely, unbearable. Here, Brigstocke is just a puppy dog trying to win over his long suffering wife Charity and he doesn't convince for a second as a force of nature. At one stage she wryly observes that Barnum was "the fella who wants to give the world a paint job, which I don't think it really needs". Laura Pitt-Pulford makes the, on paper, thankless, role of the long suffering, sober schoolmarm wife totally sympathetic.
Another stand out is Dutch star Celinde Shoenmaker (just out of two years in Phantom), who seems to be the re-incarnation 'the Swedish Nightingale' Jenny Lind herself, such is her stunning vocal range and Nordic allure. Barnum imported Lind from Europe for a hefty price and, amazingly, inserted her in his show, amidst the "circus freaks", to up the 'class' quotient.
Designer Paul Farnsworth has transformed the normally cramped Menier into an expansive and atmospheric circus tent. This gives choreographer Rebecca Howell free rein for 360 degree staging, typified in her uplifting 'Come Follow the Band', a showstopper for a Marching Band.
Circus director Scott Maidment also delivers us a lively bunch of acrobatic gymnasts, tumblers, clowns and fire eaters, who simply fizz with energy. Then there is Harry Francis as Tom Thumb who does more mid-air pirouettes than a Carlos Acosta.
Like Barnum the Chocolate Factory thinks big and for a show that demands scale they do their usual wonders. The miscasting of the leading man should be cause for reflection though, but should not deter musical fans from catching this spirited revival.