Barnum – Review – Chichester Festival’s Near Smash-Hit Musical Revival

William J Connolly
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Nick Butcher and Ensemble.

 Theatre in the Park, Chichester Festival Theatre | 7:00pm, Wednesday 24th July, 2013

Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Barnum high-wires itself into the circus imagination of its audience and almost loses weak story along the way. 

Set in a beautiful surrounding, large tent on a warm summer’s evening, if ever a musical had the perfect setting, this is it.

Leading Barnum is American born Christopher Fitzgerald as high-energy, funny circus-man, Phineas T Barnum. A theatrical import from America, he is known to many for originating the role of Boq in the original Broadway production of Wicked!. Fitzgerald is humorous, cheeky and dedicated to the role; however, his weak vocals and slightly annoying characterisation makes his performance unloveable.

He is joined by on-stage partner Tamsin Carroll as Chairy Barnum. Stage veteran, Carroll is everything the experienced British performer aspires to be. From her understaffed entrance through the auditorium to take centre-stage until the final curtain, her performance is beautiful, as is she.

Starting in early 1835 and ending in 1880, Barnum follows the life of Phineas T Barnum and the circus-filled adventures his life takes him on. This is however where the story does end. The over-use of circus skills and large sets nicely cover-up for the dull, weak and often tedious storyline. Having never seen Barnum before, finding the story difficult to follow made the piece almost blur into one. This considered, it shouldn’t take away from the great heart the piece has and almost, just almost, a potential touching moment as its leading lady leaves into a shadow of luminous juggling balls. As bizarre as that sounds, even in its most tender moments, the addition of odd staging and adventurous scenery distracts the attention once again.

However, nothing comes across greater in Barnum than Anna O’Bryne as the Swedish leading-lady, Jenny Lind. Aside from the gorgeous look and poise of the Australian star, her soprano vocals as she rose high above the stage mid-act one, with ‘Love Makes Such Fools of Us All’, thoroughly deserving of the huge cheer it received. O’Bryne was recently seen as Christine in the DVD filming of Love Never Dies.

The show does however belong to one of, if not the, hardest working ensembles in the business currently. If not hanging upside-down high above the stage then they’re performing loud ensemble dance numbers or filling-in smaller roles. They never stop. I’d recommend paying the ticket price alone just for their performances.

Show highlights must include all large ensemble numbers. Unsure where their next entrance will be, you are left watching the ceiling for the next group of ropes to fall followed by a gorgeous young performer or around the theatre for another circus-filled surprise entrance. Great numbers include ‘Come Follow The Band’, ‘Colours Of My Life’, ‘One Brick at a Time’ and ‘Join the Circus’, receiving consistently warm receptions throughout the night. And how could it be a circus without a bit of rope-walking. Fitzgerald crossing the length of the theatre on a high-wire.

Press night attracted many stage celebrities including Cameron Mackintosh, Jerry Mitchell, Christopher Biggins and Tracie Bennett to name but a few. The production has many great pieces of direction, including some rather nerving scenery uses, including a slight mishap involving O’Bryne. She does however recover well. Direction and Choreography comes from Timothy Sheader, Liam Steel and Andrew Wright.

Although the likeliness of Barnum following in previous years’ footsteps from Chichester towards London is slim, I can’t help but feel Cameron will be disappointed with the overall artistic interpretation. With the monumental success of recent productions from Chichester including Sweeney Todd and Kiss Me Kate, it seems the pressure and high expectations of the theatre may have added to the slightly disappointment for some.

All this aside, the show, in its unique setting, makes a thoroughly enjoyable summer’s evening out and should be experienced by all.

If you can grab a ticket, go. You are in safe hands with Barnum.

Barnum runs at Chichester’s Theatre in the Park until August 31st, 2013. Tickets available via:

About William J Connolly

Theatre journalist | Ex: The Times Newspaper, London 2012 (PR) and Marketing Manager for CHTC (Sheffield Lyceum). Twitter: @WJConnolly