BWW Review: BARNUM: Run Away With This Circus
Music by Cy Coleman, Lyrics by Michael Stewart, Book by Mark Bramble; Director/Choreographer, Rachel Bertone; Producer, Sharman Altshuler; Musical Director, Dan Rodriguez; Set Design, Cameron McEachern; Lighting Design, John Malinowski; Sound Design, Brian McCoy; Costume Design, Marian Bertone; Stage Manager, Alexandra Shoemaker; Production Manager, Julie Marie Langevin; Properties Master, Lisa Berg; Circus Arts Consultant/Aerial Choreographer, Ellen Waylonis; Technical Director, Brian Melcher
CAST (in order of appearance): Zaven Ovian, Todd Yard, Shonna Cirone, Dan Prior, CarlA Martinez, Allison Russell, Matthew Cossack, Andrea Lyons, Daniel Forest Sullivan, Joy Clark, Branson Gates, Jessica Kundla, Alexa Wang
Performances through April 30 by Moonbox Productions at Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, Roberts Studio Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, dubbed The Greatest Show on Earth, is folding its tent and riding off into the sunset, about to perform its last show in May, 2017, after 146 years in operation. Lucky for us, Moonbox Productions is paying loving tribute to its creator, P.T. Barnum, America's greatest showman, in a dazzling, dizzying staging of Barnum in the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. Director/choreographer Rachel Bertone is in charge of keeping all of the balls in the air and her talented ensemble cast of actors-turned-circus performers are naturals at clowning around and making the juggling look easy.
The 1980 Tony Award-winning musical (Best Actor, Jim Dale; Best Scenic Design, David Mitchell; Best Costume Design, Theoni V. Aldredge) follows the career of Barnum (Todd Yard) from 1835 to 1881 as he parlays his personal brand of "humbug" into a successful show filled with such attractions as the oldest woman alive, the smallest man in the world, and Jumbo the Elephant. He butts heads with his down-to-earth wife Charity (Shonna Cirone), but the combination of his charm and excitability with her good judgment and prudence makes them a formidable team.
Yard and Cirone are a great team, as well. They have a warm, authentic connection and their voices (his - electric, hers - like butterscotch) blend harmonically when they sing about their differences ("The Colors of My Life," "I Like Your Style"). We can feel her exasperation when she tries to tame the tiger she has caught by the tail, but we are won over by his optimistic enthusiasm and unflagging energy. The gullibility of the audience is Barnum's bread and butter ("There is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute"), but he includes himself in the same basket and is not out to "take" anyone. His purpose is to entertain and bring smiles to the patrons, and if it requires more than a little suspension of disbelief, then so be it. Who cares if Joice Heth (CarlA Martinez), the oldest woman, is really 160 years old? She's old enough to make an impressive show when she belts out her signature song ("Thank God I'm Old") and does some creaky dance moves before athletically kicking her leg up over her head.
General Tom Thumb (Bransen Gates) appears small when seated in an oversized chair or when placed in front of Jumbo's swaying trunk, but there's nothing small about his talent when he's introduced with a jaunty song and dance ("Bigger Isn't Better"). Another big talent in a small package is the lovely songbird Barnum imports from Sweden, Jenny Lind (Jessica Kundla), considerably raising the culture quotient of his traveling show. When the impresario and the opera singer take an interest in each other, the bliss of the Barnum marriage is threatened, but Charity handles it with dignity and without rancor, leaving the door ajar for her husband to come to his senses.
A story about a colorful man like P.T. Barnum, whose dreams are all big and bold, needs a bright and bouncy score to sell it. The musical numbers by Cy Coleman (music) and Michael Stewart (lyrics) fill the bill and Musical Director Dan Rodriguez (piano/conductor) leads an eight-piece orchestra that oompah-pahs with brio. The voices coming out of the ensemble are amazing, especially when the actors sing and perform synchronized brick-tossing simultaneously ("One Brick at a Time"). Bertone's staging and choreography are inventive throughout, combining dance and circus routines as they do (a shoutout to collaborator Ellen Waylonis who is billed as Circus Arts Consultant/Aerial Choreographer), and the cast boasts several strong dancers, among them Matthew Kossack, Andrea Lyons, and Daniel Forest Sullivan. Zaven Ovian gives a colorful portrayal as the Ringmaster and doubles as James A. Bailey, Barnum's eventual partner.
In support of her own creative work, Bertone has a design team that transforms the Roberts Studio Theatre into the big top. Cameron McEachern (set), John Malinowski (lighting), and Brian McCoy (sound) do wonders with the somewhat small stage, but they make use of the aisles, ladders on both sides of the set, and overhead space for aerial stunts. Marian Bertone (costumes) suggests band uniforms without all the pomp, creates a mesmerizing array of black and white outfits, and finds fun ways to dress the clowns and featured performers that allow them sufficient freedom of movement for their tricks, and Properties Master Lisa Berg assures that all of the necessary bells, whistles, hoops, and juggling implements are at the ready.
With Barnum, Bertone and Moonbox have crafted a delightful diversion with a bit of sleight of hand, giving us the feeling that we're at a three-ring circus where only one ring exists. There is so much happening to grab our attention, be it Yard's electrifying performance, Cirone's understated portrayal and beautiful vocals, or circus routines of all kinds, that it can be a challenge to decide where to focus. My advice is to sit forward in your seat, let the music carry you away, and dream about joining the circus.
[Since its founding in 2011 by Producing Artistic Director Sharman Altshuler, Moonbox Productions has partnered with a local non-profit for each of their shows. This time around, the recipient of their largesse is ZUMIX, an East Boston-based organization dedicated to positive youth development and building community through music and the arts. It is fitting to pair the program with Barnum, a template for what can come from big dreams and determination.]
Photo credit: Earl Christie (Zaven Ovian,Allison Russell, CarlA Martinez, Dan Prior, Matthew Kossack, Alexa Wang, Todd Yard, Daniel Forest Sullivan, Andrea Lyons, Bransen Gates, Joy Clark, Jessica Kundla)