HELEN MUSA’s weekly arts column features opening concerts and shows in Canberra
HE was known as the Prince of Humbug, and reputedly responsible for the saying “There’s a sucker born every minute”, but Phineas Taylor Barnum was also the man responsible for the longevity of the modern circus when he established and toured his “Greatest Show On Earth” the length and breadth of America.
Cy Coleman’s musical “Barnum” celebrates the legend rather than the man, with a score crammed with toe-tapping songs and a cast that includes some of Barnum’s most famous attractions in Jumbo the elephant, General Tom Thumb and Joice Heth, the 160-year-old nurse of George Washington.
This exuberant production, for the Canberra Philharmonic Society, is stylishly directed by Anita Davenport. The Erindale Theatre stage is transformed into a giant circus ring to capture the magical milieu of the circus. Acrobats swing from trapezes, jugglers, dancers and unicyclists compete for attention in Jodi Hammond’s cleverly choreographed production numbers. Rhys Madigan adds to the excitement by accurately capturing the brassy circus sound with his excellent band.
Greg Sollis gives a masterful performance at PT Barnum. Commanding attention from the outset, he sings his songs with conviction, finds the humanity in his characterisation and even manages to juggle and walk a tightrope with aplomb. Matching him every inch of the way, as his long-suffering wife Chairy, Julia Walker sings beautifully, and imbues her character with a lovely mixture of warmth and feistiness that makes their scenes together quite delightful.
The show is packed with stand-out feature roles in which Demi Smith (Jenny Lind), Meaghan Stewart (Joice Heth), Mark Zatschler (Tom Thumb), Kate Tricks (blues singer), Paul Sweeney (in a variety of cameos) and Jano Simko, who brings his circus skills and effervescent personality to the role of the Ringmaster, are particularly memorable.
No doubt adjustments will be made to the lighting design so that important characters are not lost in the gloom, and to the sound balance which, on opening night, resulted in the band sometimes overwhelming the singers, but these technical blemishes apart, this superbly performed production with its excellent costumes and setting is a “must see” for anyone looking for a joyous, entertaining night in the theatre.