There’s no love/hate conundrum when it comes to the circus; everyone seems entrenched in one of two distinct tents.
Tent One inhabitants count down the days until the Bulls and Blackhawks vacate the United Center to make room for the “Greatest Show on Earth.” Those in Tent Two see the circus as a sketchy entertainment remnant of days gone by.
The great thing about the musical, “Barnum,” running at Chicago’s Mercury Theater through June 16, is its ability to equally satisfy theater-lovers residing in either circus tent.
At its core, “Barnum” is a love story that chronicles the mid-1800s story of dreamer P.T. Barnum and his practical wife, Chairy. Her observation that Barnum “wants to give the whole world a paint job, which I’m not so sure it needs,” is telltale to both the conflict between the pair and the simultaneously exquisite and understated staging by L. Walter Stearns at the intimate 290-seat North Side theatre.
To be sure, circus acts featuring Tom Thumb, assorted magic tricks and acrobatics and one enormous Jumbo the elephant are appropriately wowing. But they’re just-as-fittingly modest enough to keep the spotlight on an amazing professional cast featuring Broadway veteran Gene Weygandt as Barnum, Cory Goodrich as Chairy and lovely Summer Naomi Smart as Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, brought to the U.S. by Barnum to give his show legitimacy and ultimately to test his love for his wife.
The sets and lighting, too, are understated, continual reminders this audience has been transported—given unsanctioned permission to glimpse into the places, events and most importantly, people, of a distant era. Find a full synopsis of “Barnum” here.
“Barnum’s” score, a fitting companion to the story, is a wonderful amalgamation of marches, ballads and ragtime tunes that earned a Tony nomination (among 10 received for the show) during its 1980-82, 854-performance Broadway run.
In particular, the Weygandt/Goodrich duet, “The Colors of My Life,” Smart’s, “Love Makes Such Fools of Us All,” and the powerhouse all-cast numbers, “Come Follow the Band,” and, “Join the Circus,” are highlights.
But if there’s a single reason this production of “Barnum” is not to be missed (there really isn’t—there are many), it’s news that a Cameron Mackintosh-produced London revival is in the offing later this year.
To be sure, the “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” poobah will undoubtedly create a grand spectacle that, with success, will be brought with great fanfare to Broadway and, ultimately, to a touring company through Chicago.
That’s when those fortunate to have seen this production will look back and remember the intimacy this venue, this cast, this team delivered in the spring of 2013. And they’ll smile with the knowledge that, indeed, that is how “Barnum” was meant to be staged.
Performances for “Barnum” at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, run Wednesdays through Sundays until June 16. Tickets cost $25-59 per person and are available online, by phone at 773-325-1700 or in person. Ticket discounts are available for groups of 10 or more.
Barry Reszel is a Libertyville-based writer, at-home dad and executive director of the not-for-profit entertainment company Liberty Town Productions.