Cy Coleman’s musical about the life and times of history’s most famous impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum has a big reputation thanks to the original 1981 West End production starring Michael Crawford. It ran at the gigantic London Palladium for a couple of years, an almost unimaginable feat for any musical these days.
All I can say is it must have been quite the show, because the book, by Mark Bramble, is agonisingly negligible; a soft-hearted, rose-tinted confection that frames Barnum’s colourful career as little more than a soppy love story. Considering it’s about the ultimate showman, the lack of incident is staggering – we go to the interval on the bombshell of Barnum about to cheat on his long-suffering wife Charity with his star act Jenny Lind. But this fizzles out almost immediately, and is virtually the only thing that actually happens.
And yet for all its gaping flaws, the very subject matter of ‘Barnum’ lends itself to an entertaining production. US director Gordon Greenberg and his designer Paul Farnsworth have rearranged the Menier like a big top, and packed it full of a sexy, grungy cast who twirl and vamp and bust out some nifty little magic tricks (courtesy of Chris Cox) with winning zeal. There are moments when the tiny room seems to contain an impossible amount of life. It’s the best sort of flimflam.
And the whole thing is propped up by musical theatre star Laura Pitt-Pulford, who brings humour, charisma, depth and real singing chops to the role of Charity.
Unfortunately ‘Barnum’ needs two great lead performances to huckster you out of noticing its deficiencies. And comic-slash-actor Marcus Brigstocke is simply not the man for the job. His quick wit, way with an ad-lib and general charm suggest the logic for his casting. But he’s an unforgivably weak singer – rendering many of the lyrics borderline inaudible – and he has a muted presence: his Barnum feels like a wide-eyed innocent along for the ride, not the showman in the driving seat.
Ultimately the musical itself is the most at fault, reducing one of US’s most ambivalent icons to a blandly aspirational American archetype. You’ll have a decent time, but it’s hardly the greatest show on earth.