Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 29th January, 2015
Coleman and Stewart’s 1980 musical is back on the road, given the kind of treatment you might expect of a Kander & Ebb. Stylised staging suggests the circus ring – the arena in which events in the life of showman Phineas T Barnum will take place. A chorus of supple and talented performers display impressive circus skills – they sing well and dance well; it’s good to see a company of this size touring the provinces. Their energy is infectious.
But I’m afraid the show doesn’t pack the punch it thinks it does. With very few characters, it boils down to a portrait of Barnum’s marriage, including an affair with Swedish nightingale, Jenny Lind. For me, the style of presentation keeps me at too much of a distance to care much at all.
There is nothing I can say against the performers. British showman Brian Conley is a perfect fit as the eponymous American showman. His own personality comes through – especially when interacting with the audience. “It’s a puppet,” some wag shouts as soon as Conley appears. “Not tonight,” he drawls. He is completely in control – and if force of personality were not enough, he has acquired a range of skills hitherto unseen: he conjures flowers, he eats fire and so on. He walks a tightrope, literally and metaphorically, between his wife and his mistress.
As the long-suffering but eminently supportive Mrs B, Linzi Hateley is a sweet and calming influence. I would like more solo numbers for her. She contrasts nicely with the ethereal, almost glacial Jenny Lind (Kimberley Blake, who sings like a – well, a nightingale, while being hoist aloft on a perch).
Mikey Jay-Heath is an effervescent Tom Thumb with a firecracker of a musical number, lighting up the stage with razzle dazzle; clever staging plays around with scale most effectively. Similarly, Landi Oshinowo makes her mark as the world’s oldest woman Joice Heth, before appearing as a blues singer, giving the action emotion that perhaps isn’t already present.
It’s a likeable production of a so-so musical. It’s the pizazz and razzamatazz that you enjoy. Like Barnum’s attractions themselves, when you see it for what it is, it’s a humbug. It’s like opening the most fancily wrapped present to find the wrapping is more attractive than the gift.