Barnum continues at the Bristol Hippodrome until 27 September and then on national tour until August 2015.
When Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of the circus musical Barnum played at the Chichester Festival Theatre last year (appropriately enough in a grand marquee as the main house was being refurbished), it was greeted with a clutch of unfavourable reviews. One reason put forward was that the company only had five weeks to prepare the high-tech visual images that tumble their way through the story of ‘the greatest showman on earth’. Another was that if Phineas T Barnum himself traded in hokum, this was also pretty much true of Mark Bramble’s book.
Now, happily, both these fault lines have been spectacularly put right for this exhilarating touring version. Mackintosh and his creative team have had a whole year to recalibrate the show, sharpening up its staging to a level that can only be described as super-charged, and fleshing out Barnum’s often difficult relationship with his wife Chairy.
More than anything, though, he has cast Brian Conley in the lead, ensuring not just boundless exuberance throughout, but a new element of emotion, a quality that Conley has become more comfortable with as his experience of musicals has grown. Very much at home with the big show-stoppers, such as ‘Come Follow the Band’ and ‘The Colours of My Life’, he also successfully charts the impact on his career of the death of Chairy, sensitively played and attractively sung by Linzi Hateley.
None of this would count for a great deal, of course, if the spectacle of the circus didn’t light up the stage at every opportunity, and here director Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy and choreographer Andrew Wright make sure the supremely athletic, circus-trained cast paint a vibrant visual picture of 19th century showbiz.
The decision to have members of the ensemble show off some of their circus tricks in the auditorium, as the audience arrives, establishes a buoyant mood from the word go, and Conley himself is not adverse to some stilt-walking, and a magic fire trick or two, along with the famous scene from the very first production, where Barnum walks a symbolic (and very real) tight-rope into the arms of his Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind.
In many ways this is an old-fashioned musical, compared with today’s sung-through genre. It is built around close to 20 of composer Cy Coleman’s largely upbeat musical numbers, with lyrics by Michael Stewart, interspersed with narrative set-pieces that, despite the rewriting, remain on the thin side. This is counter-balanced, though, by impressive cameos of key artists in the legendary showman’s life, most notably the brilliantly staged dance routine on stilts for Tom Thumb, played by Mikey Jay-Heath, and Kimberly Blake’s operatic-voiced and seductive Jenny Lind.
Conley also breaks away from the rather traditional approach by cleverly using some of his pantomime skills to bond with the audience, and the locating of the band, under musical director Ian Townsend, on stage is also a winner.