The Circus is in Town [But Not For Long]!

Walking into Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre on opening night of Barnum The Circus Musical to a full sized circus tent bursting form the proscenium arch, it was clear this show was going to deliver.

The true story, made popular most recently by blockbuster hit The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, follows Phineas Taylor Barnum’s career as entertainment architect, and the impact his obsession with showbusiness had on his life and relationships. Retold as an exalted highlights reel, we follow Barnum from 1835 Connecticut to the conception of Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” in 1880. The show last hit the Australian stage almost 40 years ago in 1982 with Reg Livermore in the title role. But now, with an audience tuned by the Hollywood hit, the musical is primed to make a return.

You know a show is good when directorial decisions don’t get in the way of the story, and this was the case for Tyran Park’s vision. Aesthetically beautiful, it would have been easy to over saturate this production with circus acts in a bid to wow the crowd – and, don’t get me wrong, there were awe inspiring moments a-plenty – but Park’s restraint and subtlety was what made the poignant moments soar. Tweaking the tone ever so slightly to bring a somewhat dated book to life and deliver the piece to a present day audience, Park was able to modernise elements of the show just enough to make it fresh but not so much as to polarise those who know and love the original text.

The musical direction had Stephen Gray written all over it. Precise timing, tight harmonies, big plosives and diction for days, Gray’s leadership kept Cy Coleman’s score true to its origin. With maestro and band onstage (as has become popular of late), the oom-pah-pah of the big band orchestrations wafted out to the crowd in true circus style.

With a choreographic history steeped in the classic broadway style, theatrical veteran and legend in the Australian dance community, Kelly Aykers, provided understated movement for the ensemble cast. Clever but not overly showy, this allowed the circus acts to breathe and shine.

Former Cirque Du Soleil solo artist (Alegria), Zebastian Hunter, took the reins when it came to bringing Barnum’s ‘sucker-bait’ attractions to life. From traditional clowning, juggling, tumbling, acrobatics and adagio (acrobalance) to tricks on larger apparatus – lyra (hoop), silks, Cyr wheel, tightrope and trapeze – Hunter was able to pack each number with more than the eye could behold. I couldn’t help but feel the ensemble would have benefited from some extra time in the theatre in the lead up to Opening Night for the circus elements to settle in the space. Even so, the precarious nature of each trick added to the anticipation.

Although far removed from his last onstage character in The Rocky Horror Show, Todd McKenney borrows some of Frank N Furter’s style. Injecting witty ad libs and asides into his performance as P. T. Barnum, the “Prince of Humbug”, he had the audience in fits of laughter. Capturing and physicalising Barnum’s inner child and overactive imagination faultlessly, he cheekily breaks character and launches into direct address. As the band vamps mid-patter song, he pants and chuckles, “It was so much easier 20 years ago,” before launching back into rapidfire lyrics. Later, teetering on the ledge before a perilous tightrope walk, he murmurs, “Where’s Hugh Jackman when you need him?” But, despite these amusing jibes at his own capability, Todd McKenney has definitely still got it!

Rachael Beck, as Charity Barnum, makes a lovely romantic match for McKenney, playing the role of ‘straight man’ to his clownish character with grace and ease; and Suzie Mathers, as the alluring Jenny Linde, sends classical soprano tones gliding straight to the rafters.

Kirby Burgess took on the role of Ringmaster with gusto. Typically played by a male, the Ringmaster’s role is to narrate the story, making big-top metaphors of the events in Barnum’s life, personifying his obsession with the fantastical and representing the impresario’s temptation to forsake his family responsibilities for artistic passion. In addition to luring the showman back into show business on the brink of giving it up for good, the Ringmaster also takes on all the supplementary roles, slipping from character to character to move the story along – and Burgess did so seamlessly.

The ensemble, primarily made up of circus athletes, was strong, versatile and exceptionally talented in their craft. They traversed and manipulated the multipurpose set to transform the stage from scene to scene – all while performing breathtaking circus tricks.

Dressed as a big top with mobile bleachers, the set wasn’t just a sight – it was practical, too. With a hidden sideshow cart that transformed for each new “freak” act and eventually into Jumbo the Circus Elephant, it was a magnificent use of space and resources.

This show truly is a spectacle and a wonderful night out for families. Barnum The Circus Musical is playing for a strictly limited 6-week season at Melbourne’s comedy theatre. This production is said never to be seen again, so don’t miss out!

BARNUM THE CIRCUS MUSICAL is now playing an exclusive engagement at Melbourne’s most intimate professional musical theatre venue, the Comedy Theatre for a strictly limited time until  JUNE 2 2019.

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