They called it the Greatest Show on Earth when in 1880 P.T. Barnum joined forces with J.A. Bailey to create what we know today as the traveling circus. Fast forward 100 years and Barnum’s own story has itself become a ‘show’ although perhaps not one of the ‘greatest stage musicals’ on earth.
Opening on Broadway in 1980 with Carry On star Jim Dale as Barnum and lesser-known actress (at the time) Glenn Close as his wife the show won awards but failed to set the world alight. Now the musical has been revived by one of musical theatre’s most successful producers, Cameron Mackintosh, and the Chichester Festival Theatre. Joining forces the duo have created a new production of Barnum, which is embarking on its first national tour, stopping at Manchester’s Palace Theatre.
Comedian and all round entertainer Brian Conley excels in the title role of the Yankee showman. He might not be the best singer as he talks through a lot of Cy Coleman’s score but his cheeky acting style and infectious charm has the audience in the palm of his hands. In parts you could argue this is simply the ‘Brian Conley show’ although that would be a little unfair to the wonderful supporting performers and ensemble who are themselves extremely talented and engaging. When Conley is onstage though he dominates like no other.
Musical theatre veteran Linzi Hateley is a joy to watch as she takes on the role of Chairy Barnum, the realistic but sweet natured wife of PT. Hateley (whose CV boasts Broadway and the West End) is a mixture of Julie Andrews and Barbara Streisand as she breezes through the musical numbers with ease and has a brilliant rapport with stage hubby Conley.
A special mention should go to Kimberley Blake for stunning vocals as opera star Jenny Lind and Landi Oshinowo for her hilarious characterization of 160 year old spectacle Joice Heth.
Colourful costume design from Paul Wills and some clever coordinated choreography from Andrew Wright make up for a weak script and story telling of the Barnum tale. It’s a shame there’s not more about his life in the Circus ring rather than his love triangle, which seems dull in comparison.
That said watch out for some great numbers to feast your eyes on, such as Join The Circus and One Brick At A Time where there’s jaw dropping tricks a plenty, from fire eating to tight rope walking…and that’s just from Brian Conley!!
Barnum might not be the best musical you have ever seen but it is an enjoyable one to catch whilst it is in town.
Palace Theatre Manchester
Tuesday 4 to Saturday 15 November 2014