BWW Reviews: Totem Pole's BARNUM Is A 'Jumbo' Spectacle
Hey, kids, it's a musical! It's a big splashy one, hasn't been on Broadway for years, but it won some Tonys when it ran, it's in a big revival, surely, and, oh, look - a circus! Wow, PIPPIN sure is great! What? It's not PIPPIN? PIPPIN wasn't originally about a circus? But... revival? Oh - not Broadway, but by Cameron Mackintosh, in England? Wait - it's BARNUM! A circus show that actually is about the circus? No way!
Yes, it's BARNUM, the unfortunately frequently overlooked 1980 Broadway hit by Mark Bramble and Michael Stewart, with a huge collection of hummable tunes by Broadway songsmith Cy Coleman. And while you may not be able to make it to Chichester Festival Theatre to see Mackintosh's production, you can still manage to see it at Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, courtesy of director JJ Kaczynski -- who incidentally has directed the non-circus version of PIPPIN elsewhere.
BARNUM's a gigantic project to stage, no matter how large the theatre, no matter how much rehearsal time, so that Kaczynski and creatives and crew have managed to get this on the Totem Pole stage with a cast of - okay, it's dozens, not hundreds, but this is summer stock, not a Broadway house - around thirty, and three weeks' rehearsal (which is well over the normal two weeks of summer stock prep) is a massive accomplishment involving not just rehearsals but the solving of logistical nightmares for staging. Those logistical nightmares include getting Jumbo, the world's largest elephant, across the Totem Pole stage while General Tom Thumb, the world's smallest man, is performing his act, and yes, that feat is indeed accomplished, and without the elephantine equivalent of War Horse. (We shall not disclose here how the feat is accomplished. As P.T. Barnum knew, that would spoil the anticipation.)
P.T. Barnum, a man who invented dreaming big, the man who taught us "there's a sucker born every minute," is played by current Totem Pole artistic director Ray Ficca, who's no stranger to the Totem Pole stage, either. It's no secret that Ficca's a fine actor, who's spent more time on stage in Washington, where he lives, than in Fayetteville, and while he's not the singer that the original BARNUM star, Jim Dale, was, he can still sell a song the way Barnum himself sold a side show. Add to that, he can walk a tightrope on stage. So it's not fifty feet in the air? This is a theatre, not the Big Top.
While BARNUM is ostensibly about the development of the Barnum and Bailey circus, it's really about the circus that was P.T. Barnum's life (though it's not necessarily the most accurate version of it), and to convey that, Totem Pole veteran Traci Lyn Thomas plays his wife and foil, Charity Barnum. She's possibly the strongest voice in the show - it's no surprise to anyone listening to her that she's toured in LES MISERABLES. And her strong voice suits Chairy's strong character - it's Chairy who pushes Barnum into most of his successes, and who encourages his equally successful political career (a very real one, which included his anti-slavery, African-American voting rights, and temperance platforms). Thomas and her voice are the perfect contrasts to Ficca's "Taylor," especially in the show's major hit, "The Colors of My Life".
It's also Chairy, a supporter of the arts as opposed to side shows, who encourages her husband to promote the European musical star, soprano Jenny Lind, in an American tour. Modern audiences, not exactly opera lovers, cannot imagine that Lind, thanks to her European notoriety and Barnum's squadrons of publicists (he employed over two dozen journalists to promote his work nationally), her appearances then produced the nineteenth century equivalent of "Bieber Fever". Amy Decker, last seen at Totem Pole in BOEING BOEING, is a lovely Jenny Lind, with a marvelous soprano, who understands how to take charge of a stage. It's one of the strengths of this show - both in its book and with this cast - that the story line's suggested affair between Lind and Barnum feels plausible. In real life, Lind was a religiously devout doer of good works and early feminist, and Barnum, though not the most devoted husband on record, was noted more for his general wanderlust (he was in England when Charity died, and stayed there for four months after, never returning for the funeral) than for philandering. Lind's actual admirers tended towards the musical - Mendelssohn and Chopin among them. But Ficca and Decker have some serious chemistry that makes the fiction work well here.