Left – Rachael Beck and Todd McKenney. Cover – the cast of Barnum. Photos – Jeff Busby
Barnum The Circus Musical produced by StoreyBoard Entertainment in association with the National Institute of Circus Arts has been expertly re-imagined from the classic 1980’s musical hit for a new audience. Barnum The Circus Musical is a personal account of the showman and entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, of Barnum & Bailey Circus fame. P.T. Barnum became a household name to a new generation through the 2017 movie blockbuster The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman. Those unfamiliar with the origin of Barnum The Circus Musical could be forgiven for expecting an adaptation of the movie. But make no mistake Barnum The Circus Musical stands apart from The Greatest Showman offering unique storytelling with an outstanding cast.
The lead character P.T. Barnum played skilfully by Todd McKenney from the outset, lets the theatre audience in on his little secret, which is his ability to successfully ‘humbug’ (humbug is an American colloquialism for deceptive behaviour or talk). Barnum’s inclination to humbug his real audience is portrayed as a harmless character trait, indeed it is suggested that humbug is necessary for success, with parallels drawn between Barnum’s ability to humbug his audience and what we experience in Australian politics.
McKenney has a huge stage presence, with a flair for ab lib in performance, the perfect combination to perhaps explore the darker side of the character which Director Tyran Parke discusses in his program notes. Personal thoughts on humbug and character exploration aside, in this arena P.T. Barnum is remembered as a loveable rogue as opposed to a fraud, testimony to the creators and McKenney’s endearing performance of the character.
Rachel Beck plays the role of Charity Barnum, P.T.’s long enduring wife. Beck plays Charity with strength, who on the surface is a conservative character. Charity encourages her husband to give up on his dreams and settle into a regular job. In reality Charity is a multidimensional character who ultimately supports, and indeed fosters Barnum’s successes. McKenney and Beck played the love story between Charity and Barnum convincingly. We meet the characters when they are already married with children, so we are not expecting a smouldering love affair. What Beck and McKenney successfully portray is a love which radiates compassion, frustration, humour, respect, neglect, forgiveness and ultimately loss.
Kirby Burgess plays the role of the Ringmaster, and she was a standout performer in this production. The decision to cast a female as the Ringmaster by Director Tyran Parke was well considered for a 21st Century audience, and was specific to this production. Whilst Kirby was outfitted in typically male costumes there was an unmistakable femininity in what she was wearing. The significant historic male roles were also played by the Ringmaster, in the words of Parke the characters “all pull Barnum to the pursuit of the dream, personified through the Ringmaster herself”. Through minor wardrobe embellishments, accents, and physical posturing Kirby walked through these characters with ease and flair. The gender of the Ringmaster became fluid, aligned to modern day notions of gender and women’s roles in contrast to the era which Barnum represents, the mid to late 19th century.
It is indisputable that P.T. Barnum created an enduring legacy, but I am pleased that circus as P.T. Barnum conceived is becoming a relic of the past. Contemporary circus has an established niche (think Cirque du Soleil and Circus Oz), where traditional circus skills are blended with character and story development, and animals are rarely used. Unfortunately, the legacy of humbug seems harder to shake off.
StoreyBoard Entertainment presents
Barnum The Circus Musical
book Mark Bramble | lyrics Michael Stewart | music Cy Coleman
Director Tyran Parke
Venue: The Comedy Theatre | 240 Exhibition Street Melbourne VIC
Dates: 2 – 24 May 2019
Tickets: $71 – $115
Bookings: 1300 111 011 | www.ticketmaster.com.au