Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2004
Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) was 60 years old when Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus made its debut. At the time, it was the largest circus venture in American history. Shortly thereafter Barnum coined the phrase “The greatest show on earth,” a moniker the descendant of his circus still bears. “We ought to have a big show,” Barnum said. “The public expects it, and will appreciate it.”
The folks at the Mac-Haydn obviously heeded Barnum’s advice because they have mounted the biggest and best-est show imaginable in that tiny space. Arrive early because there plenty of entertainment indoors and out before the curtain rises. I did not spend enough time outside, where there were roaming clowns, because once I got inside I was just enthralled by the tumbling and stunts being performed on the stage by six youngsters from KJ’s Gymnastics. A few clowns came in to do their schtick, but I just wanted them to get out of the way so I could watch the kids.
Jim Middleton, a familiar face on the Mac-Haydn stage, has directed the extravaganza after playing the title role in Barnum, and he has brought his circus trainer Bobby Hedglin with him to coach all the juggling, tumbling, and aerial work. The combination of Middleton’s familiarity with the Mac-Haydn, Hedglin’s expertise, and the talents and daring of the Mac-Haydn company make this show truly spectacular to watch. Barnum would be proud.
Brian Laycock, a young Mac-Haydn veteran, has the title role, a choice which surprised me given the presence of Chad Heuschober and Jamie Price, both of whom have had leading roles before, which Laycock has not. There is nothing wrong with giving an up-and-coming fellow a shot, but I never really saw Laycock as all that up-and-coming. I certainly wouldn’t have started him in as large and demanding a role as this. Vocally he is fine, but his acting is rather cheerfully vanilla, giving no hint of the sweeping saga of Barnum’s life.
When I did some research, the thing I was most surprised to learn about P.T. Barnum was that he had lived and died entirely in the 19th century. His ideas on marketing and promotion were well ahead of their time and his name is well-known to this day. He certainly left a mark on the 20th century, even though he never set foot in it.
Barnum which made its debut on Broadway in 1980, is already woefully dated, smacking of late 1970’s jargon and attitude. While it is certainly fun and filled with hummable numbers, Mark Bramble’s book, Cy Coleman’s music, and Michael Stewart’s lyrics fail to present the true story of P.T. Barnum, who led a long and colorful life. They fail to capture the charm and excitement of 19th century America in either word or music. This show purports to cover the years 1835-1880, a time during which the Civil War raged, New England flowered (Barnum was a Connecticut native), and the industrial revolution took hold. Travel exploded with the rapid growth of the railways, Darwin offered his theory of evolution, and dinosaur bones were accurately identified for the first time. The world changed dramatically and P.T. Barnum was a lively participant. This show would lead you to believe that his only real contribution to it all was his partnership with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson in the circus business, which occupied only the last decade of his life.
Bramble’s concept, and it is a clever one, is to set Barnum’s life as one big circus. I know my life, deadly boring compared to Barnum’s, often feels like one. Michael Shiles acts as the Ringmaster to the whole affair, handsome in his cut-away and top hat.
Karla Shook plays Barnum’s first wife, Charity “Chairy” Barnum (1808-1873) with poise and dignity. In real life their 44 year marriage was not a happy one, and Barnum chose to remain in Europe with the woman who became his second wife months later, rather than return home to attend Charity’s funeral in 1873. But Bramble has made the relationship between “Taylor” and Charity a delightfully romantic and supportive one, and Shook it obvious why. It would be hard not to adore a woman so warm, loyal, and slyly mischievous. Shook usually gets brassier, more broadly comic roles, and it is nice to see her shine in a more restrained part.
When Kathy Kuhlenschmidt isn’t dangling from a trapeze or cartwheeling across the stage as one of the clowns, she assays the role of Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish Nightingale who Barnum successfully toured across the country. Kuhlenschmidt looks lovely, and if she doesn’t sound quite like an international opera star, she can be forgiven considering her many other talents.
My favorite number in the show had to be Gavin Waters turn in Bigger Isn’t Better as the pituitary dwarf Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883) who Barnum marketed brilliantly as “General Tom Thumb.” Waters is not a little person, but he is a slight man, and once he was surrounded by outsized props and other actors on stilts, the illusion was fairly convincing. Then the lights went out and Jumbo, the world’s largest pachyderm, was announced. Waters is a talented dancer and he makes his solo a real show stopper. I won’t give away the secret, but just wait until you see him dancing with Jumbo!
The talented Kristen Clark also makes the most of her solo number Thank God I’m Old as Joyce Heth, the woman Barnum claimed was the 161-year-old nurse to George Washington, (upon her death an autopsy discovered she was in her early seventies.) Even under a hideous wig and bad make-up, Clark’s spunk and big, bold voice make themselves evident.
The costumes by Cathleen M. Crocker-Perry are just as gorgeous and razzle-dazzle as you would imagine. Everyone looks just great. Kristian Perry has once again done a fine job creating a set within the Mac-Haydn’s quirky space.
It would take many, many paragraphs to sing the praises of all the talent displayed on the Mac-Haydn stage in this show. I continue to be impressed with the diversity of Jamie Price – he sings, he dances, he tumbles, he juggles, he walks on stilts, AND he plays the tuba?? Why wasn’t he playing the title role? Maybe he could have done “Out There” on the tightrope (I understand Middleton did). Of course, where you could string a tightrope in the Mac-Haydn is another question altogether.
Barnum runs through August 22 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and twenty-five minutes and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004