Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Giselle
This musical (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, book by Mark Bramble) tells the story of one Phineas Taylor Barnum, most famous as one of two founders of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, "The Greatest Show on Earth." Bramble's book traces Barnum's beginnings, presenting novelty acts such as Joice Heth, advertised as the oldest woman alive, General Tom Thumb, and Jumbo the world's largest elephant, then the Barnum Museum which accidentally burned to the ground, plus his later career which included managing Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale, and finally the circus.
All of this is seen through the lens of Barnum's marriage to a stolid New England school teacher, Chairy, who acts as a ballast when his flim flam threatens their stability. Coleman and Stewart's score has its high points: "There Is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute" opens the show, "Come Follow the Band" starts up act two, and "Join the Circus" is the 11 o'clock number, but much of the rest is not first rate. In fact, the romantic ballad, "The Colors of My Life" has always bored me. "I Like Your Style," "Bigger isn't Better," "Love Makes Such Fools of Us All," and "Black and White" are second rate compared to other Cy Coleman scores, such as On the Twentieth Century and I Love My Wife, both of which are filled with infectious Broadway tunes. Because of this the show has some listless stretches in act one, while act two speeds towards its conclusion with more panache.
Barnum lives or dies with a star performance. Jim Dale won a Tony Award on Broadway, Michael Crawford began his journey to stardom in London. Steve Dawson, too long absent from the stage, was the obvious choice for this part among all our talented leading men. He has pizzazz, charisma, and charm aplenty. This is an actor who has also assayed Sweeney Todd, George in Sunday in the Park with George, Harold Hill, Che in Evita, the Baron in Grand Hotel, and many others, most opposite his real-life wife Diane Dawson. One quibble in his performance, or the direction thereof, is that presenting "The Museum Song" at the breakneck speed he rattles it off at is doing no one a favor. Slower allows the audience to catch more of the clever lyrics and enjoy them.
Sarah Cassidy adds another fine performance to her ever-growing resume as Chairy. She covers the earthbound temperament as well as the love Chairy feels for her more colorful husband. That Dawson doesn't just blow her off the stage is proof of her excellent work. Judah Woomert brings a welcome wave of energy to the middle of act one as Tom Thumb. Other fine supporting performances from Manatee Players regulars include Javisha Strong as Joice Heth and the Blues Singer in act two, Cory Woomert as two of Barnum's business partners, and Michelle Anaya as Jenny Lind.
Rick Kerby sets the show center ring in the circus, with several young performers from Circus Minimus showing off their various skills on two aerial rings and on the ground, while Steve Dawson does a short walk across the wire. This makes for a lively performance when the musical otherwise threatens to descend into tedium. Vanessa Russo has choreographed to the abilities of her cast. A shout out to Josh Devine, Judah Woomert, and Noah Roderiques for leading the male dancers with great skill and presence. Rick Bogner leads his merry band. They are positioned up stage, so its fun to watch them play. Teri Booth on reeds rides a unicycle across the stage while playing piccolo and Dominic Pavone on tuba is in and out of the stage picture. Costumes, sets and projections by Ken Mooney are all on a fully professional level. Lighting by Michael Pasquini remind us what of a valuable theater artist he is, working at many of our local companies.
This has been a season in which Manatee Players breathed serious life into musicals that threatened to be dead on arrival with sensational dancing and strong starring performances (Disney's Newsies and Mary Poppins). They do it again with Barnum, which manages to be much more entertaining than it might otherwise be. Bravo!
Barnum, through May 12, 2019, at Manatee Players, Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-749-1111 or visit ManateePerformingArtsCenter.com .