Courtesy of The Croswell Opera House
ADRIAN - First things first, “Barnum” is not “The Greatest Showman.”
Then again, The Croswell might not be producing “Barnum” if not for the robust success of that film, and perhaps some people would've walked into this show having no idea who circus provocateur Phineas Taylor Barnum was. However, “The Greatest Showman,” the musical that featured Hugh Jackman as Barnum, didn't really give the audience anything to sink their teeth into. In my opinion, it just existed to display flashy songs. Granted, they were all decent tunes, but the story seemed glued together.
You could almost say the same thing about the musical “Barnum.” The book, penned by Mark Bramble, is not very strong in human or plot connection, but the songs are catchy (“Join the Circus”). The cast earns every dollar you'll spend in a ticket. The show is directed with precise detail by, the always reliable and consistent, Mark DiPietro (who even gives a fun history lecture prior to each performance that helps get you in the mindset for “The Greatest Show on Earth!”). Not to mention, the actors engage with patrons as they're entering the theater (“Step right up!”), giving the vibe of a totally immersive experience, like walking through a time capsule.
Considering “Barnum” is a musical suggesting the life of P.T Barnum, which allows theatre houses and actors to take certain liberties with the material. And considering The Croswell seems to produce top-notch shows at steady rates - “Barnum,” despite the scripts wonky narrative mechanics, stands on its own because the cast and crew know how to make a show like this seem fresh. Some of that is attributed to DiPietro, whose staging can paint a picture with any script. But, when given the reigns to deliver a full-blown circus act: he can’t be stopped from creating pure magic.
The other half? How about a cast of trained jugglers, acrobats, and a prop department that literally created a giant, life-sized, elephant named Jumbo. Although, color and action aside, standing at the heart of the acting ensemble is Croswell alum and Equity performer Eric Parker taking on the titular role. He is selling every ounce of this thing while breaking the fourth wall and conveying a sense of stern leadership. He finds the perfect rhythm between extra (because, really, Barnum was nothing if not extra) and sentimental. Not an easy feature to accomplish, because the script hardly ever gives way for the human bond and connection. Specifically in Barnum's relationship to his wife Charity (Kyrie Bristle continuing to stun audiences with her empowering vocals) that falters in wake of the dazzling effects. Still, Parker and Bristle have such good chemistry, it's no wonder these two were cast opposite each other. In a sense, they're a dream team.
So, in case you don't know the basics, “Barnum” loosely chronicles the tribulations of the great performer who could sell just about anything to anyone, as well as his rise as one of the more prominent figures in showbiz circa 19th century. That is reflected in the song “There is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute” in which Barnum sings about his schemes and cons (even going as far to convince people they're in the presences of a 160 year old woman!)
He eventually built the renowned Barnum American Museum, where people from all over the world came in droves to see what crazy ideas this man cooked up and presented. Think of Barnum as the official inspiration to “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” in which he assembled a scantly crew of humans with wacky talents including everything from body-bending contortionists, trapeze artists, and abnormally tall individuals.
Of course, looking into the history books, you can definitely find good info about the ringleader himself. What most people will remember him for, is the commercialized success of the stories told decades later. But if a show like “Barnum” is how we're going to remember him, then Parker's performance should resonant for years to come (an even better testament to this is how Parker reacts when a small mishap occurs on stage. Instead of it ruining the show, he turns it into a bit and plays it off naturally).
As for the rest of this talented ensemble, you'll see songs and appearances from the world's smallest man Tom Thumb (Ryan Book), a jazzed-up blues singer (Sarah Nowak), Mermaids, a bearded lady, and the strongest man alive, oftentimes bounding and leaping into the house, allowing for the audience to interact with the actors themselves. Lets not forget the Ringmaster (Joseph Ball) who serves as an omniscient narrator that perfectly gets the audience from one sequence to the next (he could give Michael Buffer - the WWE announcer that screams “let's get ready to rummmmble” - a run for his money).
On the technical side, music director Jonathan Sills and his calibrated orchestra bring life to Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s songs and lyrics. Meanwhile Tiff Crutchfield's polished lightning design helps elevate the production, which is also boosted via Emily Gifford's soothing costume design, and Jessica Adams tight and entertaining choreography. You should also pay attention to the circus stunts themselves (including some fun high-wire acts) as those were touched up and staged with gusto by Chloe Whiting-Stevenson. In addition, kudos is due for Leo Babcock's creative scenic design (the circus really glows), and Danielle Bluteau's stage-managing, which helps keep things moving swiftly in front of and behind the scenes.
All things considered, for what “Barnum” might lack in substance (or character development), it easily makes up for in style. I'm not sure what else you could ask for in a show that relies heavily on elaborate presentation. In essence, that's the best part of live theatre! There were a few moments during this performance where I was worried and pinned to my seat. All it takes is one slip for something to go wrong, which proves the liveliness of this show and The Croswell's creative team for giving audiences something to remember.
In this day and age, it’s easy to be swindled (and nobody did it better than Barnum) but you won’t be a sucker for buying into this production.
IF YOU GO:
'Barnum' continues its run through Sunday August 19th. Tickets are going fast and can be purchased by calling the box office at 517-264-SHOW or buy visiting croswell.org.