With the recent success of the film The Greatest Showman it makes perfect sense for March Productions to present Barnum. A difficult musical to say the least, it requires a leading man who can sing, dance and walk the tightrope.
Those of us who are old enough remember the great Reg Livermore playing the title role. March Productions have a winner on their hands with Ben Francis from the Tightrope Cast as P.T. Barnum himself. While some of the leading roles are different in the alternating cast (the Trapeze Cast), I can only comment on the cast I saw.
Director Michelle Davy wisely chose to keep the setting simple; bunting, circus awnings and blocks enable her to keep the action flowing smoothly. Her direction is tight and the tender moments are highlights of the show for me.
This show requires pace and energy as well as a central character who has charm and charisma. Ben Francis explodes onto the stage and portrays P. T. Barnum with just the right amount of cheekiness and earnestness for us to laugh and cry with him as his career rises and falls. He delivers in every aspect, especially the tightrope-walking pinnacle of Act 1.
He is perfectly matched by Annabel Lane as his wife Charity. It is a difficult role as she is the antithesis of Barnum’s rashness. She handles the tender scenes with her husband extremely sensitively and quickly endears herself to the audience.
The dedication and enjoyment of the cast is infectious and we are drawn into the lives of all the characters in Barnum’s life, including the ever-present Ring Master, commandingly played by Harry McGinty, Joyce Heith, the 160 year old woman, played with gusto by Zoe Foskett, General Tom Thumb played by Oscar Bridges on an astoundingly large chair, Jenny Lind the Swedish Nightingale who almost breaks up Barnum’s marriage, played with a well-executed Swedish accent by Cordelia Ferguson, Taylor Trans’ solo in ‘Black & White’ and Bailey, who together with Barnum, form the famous Barnum & Bailey, the latter sympathetically played by Jeremy Thomas.
There are many wonderful moments in this production, particularly the big chorus numbers, inventively choreographed by Nina Richards, who ensures that every performer shines yet maintains a sense of ensemble.
Mark DeLaine’s orchestra is big and brassy, perfect for a circus atmosphere yet able to pull back in the quieter moments, particularly with “The Colours of My Life”. There were a couple of instances when they overpowered spoken dialogue, but I am confident this will settle as the production continues.
The lighting and visuals from Jay Rayner and Mosaic Audio Visual are impressive for such a small performance space.
On the night I reviewed there were a few lighting miscues, microphone issues and Barnum’s wayward braces, but these are minor compared to the talent and enthusiasm that flowed from the stage to the audience.
March Productions are to be commended for tackling such a technically tricky show and pulling it off, giving young performers valuable opportunities to show off their talent.
Barnum is a joy from start to finish and leaves you energised and with a warm feeling in your heart!