AMERICAN FORK — What is a humbug, you ask? A word generally associated with Ebenezer Scrooge, though its not Scrooge but P. T. Barnum that was crowned “the king of humbug.” Barnum, a real life circus master became famous for his “humbugs” which were practical jokes for the sake of entertainment. His most famous humbug was the “Feegee Mermaid,” which drew the attention of the press, was in fact an elaborate hoax Barnum created from the head and torso of a monkey and the tail of a fish, demonstrating his abilities to turn an obvious hoax into a believable curiosity.
Barnum, “the circus musical,” features songbook classics such as “The Colors of My Life” and “Come Follow the Band” by legendary composer Cy Coleman and lyrics by Michael Stewart, with a book by Mark Bramble. It follows the life of P. T. Barnum, from his humble beginnings to his rise to fame, his love and loss of his wife Chairy Barnum, and his abilities to bring color and joy to Americans throughout the country, emerging as one the foremost entertainers of all time.
Yet Barnum, which hasn’t been produced in Utah for years, suffered from a dated script that failed to stand the test of time. The writing was slow and thin and it seemed to rely heavily on circus tricks and spectacle. With these elements removed, due to community theater budget constraints, the book failed to hold my attention or pull me into the world of the circus.
Part of the problem was the pacing of the show; the dialogue in the scenes felt slow and the tempo of many of the popular songs such as “Come Follow the Band” made many of the songs drag. These shortcomings kept the show from reaching the excitement needed to make me want to “join the circus” as P. T. Barnum urged. Barnum (Andy Hunsaker) carries the show, and though Hunsaker gave a valiant effort, his energy was on the whole too low for this ringmaster, and there were many moments of missed comedy. However, he had a strong singing voice that soared in “The Colors of My Life,” though at times was slightly pitchy in intonation (which partly may have been attributed to the unbalanced sound also under his design).
Chairy Barnum (played by Christie Gardiner) was a worthy match as Barnum’s headstrong counterpart. She had a pleasant singing voice and was most successful in her duets with Barnum, notably in “One Brick at a Time” and “I Like Your Style.” However Chairy and P. T. Barnum’s relationship was flat and needed greater development in their many scenes together in order to create an interesting and believable couple with a wide range of emotions. Too many of their scenes felt similar in energy, and their actions felt repetitive and revealed little new information.
Several of the supporting characters brought life to the circus in their respective roles. Tom Thumb (Casey Josephson) gave an entertaining and energized performance in “Bigger Isn’t Better,” and Jenny Lind (Alison Hensheild) demonstrated her vocal virtuoso with her powerful classical voice in “Love Makes Such Fools of Us All.”
Under the direction of Jan Hunsaker, the ensemble was showcased with gymnastics and interesting tableaus and pictures. Hunsaker utilized the stage well to create variety and aid in the storytelling, though I wish she could have helped her cast to improve the pacing and energy of the show. Her set design (though minimalistic) lent itself to quick scene changes and gave an appropriate homespun feel to the traveling troupe. This was also deftly enhanced by Mindy Berry Young’s creative choreography. Though simple, it was cleanly executed and created at a skill level appropriate to the cast’s abilities.
The costume design, under the management of Cindy Holindrake, was the strongest design element of the show. Her array of colors and appropriate circus attire helped to create the world of the play, and I had no problem believing these characters were part of a circus troupe in the 1840’s. The make-up design (by Mary Nelson) and hair design (by Stephanie Tenney) were also well done and supported the costumes successfully in tandem. The lighting design (by Bennett Jensen) was adequate for the challenges of an outdoor amphitheater and helped to keep the focus on the appropriate action, though the sound design (by Andy Hunsaker) was uneven, making it difficult to hear the voices over the tracks, which was amplified further by microphones not always working correctly.
It’s nice to see a theatre company taking risks by bringing unknown or rarely performed musicals to Utah, though Barnum is a piece that should remain a remnant of the past, with perhaps a few of Cy Coleman’s famous songs to live on and keep the memory alive.