"Barnum" may not be the greatest show on earth, but last night's circusy new musical at the St. James is colorful, eye-catching and abundantly high-spirited. Set to a buoyant, tuneful score by Cy Coleman, and with the agile Jim Dale in the title role, it radiates good cheer.
Joyously staged by Joe Layton, and resplendently designed (David Mitchell), costumed (Theoni V. Aldredge) and lighted (Craig Miller), "Barnum" has a sketchy but reasonably serviceable book by Mark Bramble. It skims the career and private life of the flamboyant 19th-century American impresario and master of flimflam Phineas Taylor Barnum in terms more affectionate, sentimental and patriotic than we could stomach were it not for the fact that Dale is playing himself at all times, never aging from 1835 to 1880, the show's span. Even so, the salutes to life, liberty and Thomas Jefferson get a bit thick at times coming from this humbug artist.
Though various encounters are meant to take place in towns and cities throughout this country and Europe, the permanent setting is a circus with a Ringmaster announcing the high spots of Barnum's career as feats, which P.T. then proceeds to enact. The method is somewhat akin to that used in the musical "Chicago," but lighthearted rather than acrid.
While Barnum woos and wins his wife Charity, or Chairy, as he calls her, signs his first fake act, a 166-year-old woman, and progresses from that to his presentation of Tom Thumb, and then of the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, and finally to a three-ring circus in partnership with James A. Bailey, the stage is almost always alive with circusy trappings. There are no animals, though there are amusing representations of tigers and an elephant, but there are jugglers, clowns, a terrific baton-wielder (Sophie Schwab), an aerialist, a one-man-band, and other features of the tanbark. And arrayed along the back, only half visible most of the time, is the full orchestra, playing excellent Hershy Kay arrangements, with twin pianists in boxes on opposite sides of the house filling in with honky-tonk choruses.
Whether bouncing from a small trampoline up to a tiny balcony where Chairy sits watching, or else actually walking a tightrope at the end of the first half, Dale is nimble and engaging. He and Glenn Close, who makes a charmingly firm-minded Chairy, have a lovely duet in "The Colors of My Life." Color, by the way, being a predominant motif in the public Barnum's life style, the sequence devoted to his abandonment of honest showmanship for a brief political career is done entirely in black-and-white.
Marianne Tatum, a pretty and shapely blonde soprano, makes a striking Jenny Lind, with whom Barnum dallies for six months before returning to Bridgeport and Chairy, and she has a period waltz (with a not entirely obvious melodic line) to sing called "Love Makes Such Fools of Us All." William C. Witter, a onetime genuine circus clown and ringmaster, is first-rate in the latter role.
And now, regretfully, to the horrendous sound system in use. Dale, who is not quite up to a couple of Danny Kaye-type rapid-patter songs anyway, especially the one titled "Museum Song," is hampered by the miking, which sometimes makes you search the stage to find a singer. Without it, the show would be at least 25% more effective. And I'm afraid I'll have to wait to see them in print before I can be a fair judge of Michael Stewart's garbled lyrics. What I could decipher, I found pleasing.
"Come Follow the Band," with a marching band parading the aisles to the stage, is a grand second-act opener, and "I Like Your Style," to which Barnum and Chairy dance, is an interesting number in 6/4 time.
"Barnum" is a lively, fun-filled evening of theater, and one with style. If nothing else, it's likely to make your kids, or even you, run away from home to "join the circus," as the finale stimulatingly beckons.
Jim Dale is a one-man, three-ring, four-star circus in Barnum, the new Cy Coleman musical which opened last night at the St. James Theater. Barnum is boisterous, brash and bright, it has a catchy, clever and occasionally very beautiful score by Cy Coleman and some tongue-twistingly adroit lyrics by Michael Stewart. And a fantastic cast led by the aforementioned Dale, who is personally a whole army of generals and individually one of the greatest shows on earth.
I loved Barnum, but even its fondest lover can see that the story is flawed. Mark Bramble has struggled hard to inject life into Barnum's life, but Bramble rambles, and his book emerges as a library of good intentions. However this said and faced, it scarcely matters. The creators of Barnum have been smart enough to place the whole show around the concept of a circus, so stop the world Barnum wants to get off the show Barnum, literally is Barnum and Barnum's world.
There is a sort of plot - and at times it seems almost plotted against the show. We see Barnum beginning in show business with George Washington's supposedly 160-year-old black nurse no less and Tom Thumb. There follows his marriage with the gentle Chairy, his abortive romance with Jenny Lind, has even more abortive romance with government office, the death of his wife, and finally, his renowned partnership with Bailey.
What the show is really about is the ring-master, the honest confidence trickster once the archtypal showman. The guy who knows that a sucker is born every minute and truly loves every single one of them. Dale becomes every instant every inch a Barnum.
What makes Dale a great performer is his nerveless, yet still nervy skills, for there is also a skeleton of fear visible inside the insouciant actor, the ability to take unlikely risks. Many comedians pratfall, but Dale freefalls. One minute he will be metaphorically jumping through a blazing hoop, and the next he will be sitting alone on stage caressing a spotlight with an outrageously sentimental grin combined with cynical eyebrows.
As Barnum he is a knockout. He sings, he dances, he juggles, he jumps, he tells jokes, he makes discreet love to the audience, not to mention the cast, he does a little trapeze work, and walks across the stage on a highwire singing a happy song. He also dares the actor's final risk. He sometimes displays his technique with the pride of a matador and his red cloak.
Yet what also makes Barnum such fun is not simply Dale's manic grace, but the whole concept of life as a circus. Not a rare concept, but here actually carried out by actors with genuine, or at least handsomely simulated, circus skills. This makes a dramatic cliche real.
Coleman is a permanent gem in Broadway's musical crown. His music is so effortless and yet honeycombed with both wit and feeling. His songs always clinch into their dramatic pace and place. Some of his patter songs here are particularly dazzling, and his verbal/musical collaboration with Stewart impresses.
To Joe Layton has fallen the task of evolving a concept musical from a book show and his staging has the virtuosity of class. Layton is so unobtrusively effective with his own seamless style that can run through a show like a shimmer of silk. Brief kind words to David Mitchell's scenery, Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes and, as ever, Hershy Kay's orchestrations. The latter could make a one-man band sound like an interesting Philharmonic.
The cast is lovely. Glenn Close, as the wife, has the ungrateful task of playing lilac to Dale's vermillion, and succeeds. Marianne Tatum is gorgeous as Jenny Lind, and in a rather contralto view of a soprano, gets one of Coleman's loveliest ballads. John Leonard Crofoot dances exuberantly, and a girl called Sophie Schwab twirls batons as if batons were back in style and twirling them was like playing Mozart in an empty room or drinking champagne with friends.
But the final impression of Barnum - and Layton is monstrously clever here - is Barnum and Dale themselves, alone, and then a coruscation of circus curtain calls. Grab this one.
Is there anything that Jim Dale can't do? Mr. Dale, who roared into town last night in a new musical called "Barnum," is not your everyday song-and-dance man. Oh, he sings just fine - in the bright style of the old British music hall - and he can kick up his legs until his feet nearly collide with his forehead. But, for this fellow, such gifts are merely a point of departure. During the course of a busy evening, Mr. Dale shows off enough tricks to make all but a Houdini dizzy. He leaps from a trampoline, he rides a unicycle, he walks a tightrope, he conducts a marching band, he dons a carrot-colored wig and plays the clown. Yet his best stunt may be the simplest of them all. When the curly-haired Mr. Dale comes forward to address the audience, his arms spread wide as if to embrace the St. James Theater's entire second balcony, he immediately transforms a gargantuan circus of a show into his own joyous playpen. This man can create magic - the magic of infectious charm - even on those rare occasions when he's standing still.
With a human wonder like Mr. Dale all about, it would be ungracious to belabor the shortcomings of the musical that tries (not too hard) to contain him. "Barnum" has plenty of other virtues besides its star, but, to get the bad news out of the way fast, it doesn't have a book. Mark Bramble, the writer, tries to create a sympathetic portrait of P. T. Barnum, the 19th-century circus man and self-styled "Prince of Humbug," and he tries to use show business as an all-purpose metaphor for the vagaries of life. But such shade of, respectively, "The Music Man" and "Gypsy" don't amount to much, and neither does the half-hearted love triangle on which Mr. Bramble hangs his story. In "Barnum," the mercifully brief libretto - or the tattered scraps that remain of it - is but stitching designed to yank us from one musical number to the next.
Given the numbers, we certainly don't mind being yanked. Cy Coleman, the composer, is in top form. Having flirted with operetta in "On the Twentieth Century," he has now returned to the snazzy showbiz idiom of "Little Me" and "I Love My Wife." "Barnum" simply bursts with melodies - ballads, marches, ragtime strut numbers, burlesque turns - and they have been orchestrated to raise the rafters by the incomparable Hershy Kay. (They are also gamely conducted by Peter Howard, who often finds his band disbanded into every pocket of the theater.)
Perhaps Michael Stewart's lyrics are a bit prosaic - rainbow colors and that sort of thing - but since he has no legitimate characters to write for, he can't be blamed for supplying all-purpose words. Besides, one of the unspoken advantages of writing the score for a book-less musical is that almost every song can be plucked from the show's context and sung in a saloon.
For Joe Layton, the director-choreographer, the principal mission of the evening is to keep the numbers whizzing by as fast as possible. Too many pauses might deflate the whole precariously balanced enterprise. Mr. Layton, whose last effort was the funereal "Platinum," seems to have studied up on Gower Champion in the interim (notably the Champion of "Carnival"). His staging is a veritable riot of sleight-of-hand effects. He not only keeps his company changing in and out of a seemingly endless supply of vivid Theoni V. Aldredge costumes, but he also has them swing on ropes, fall through midair and charge through the audience streaming balloons, handbills and confetti. Only in the middle of the second act, when Mr. Bramble bids adieu to most of his ostensible characters and unveils a political subplot, does the energy noticeably flag.
One of the by-products of Mr. Layton's Herculean efforts is to make a cast of 19 seem about a hundred strong. While Mr. Dale may account for about half of that number, some talented supporting players do emerge. Glenn Close, as the earthbound wife who unaccountably wants Barnum to get a factory job, is a winning partner to Mr. Dale in two duets. There are also spirited contributions from Marianne Tatum, as a rich-voiced Jenny Lind, and Terry White, as the springiest "160-year-old" gospel singer one might ever hope to see. Leonard John Crofoot, the show's inevitable Tom Thumb, hoofs up a storm to a song with the perhaps inevitable title of "Bigger Isn't Better." Mr. Crofoot is nimble, but no midget, and how "Barnum" reduces him to the proper stature is one of the show's wittier gags.
If there is anyone who deserves to share Mr. Dale's star billing, however, it is the designer, David Mitchell. His circus-ring set extends above the St. James proscenium, into the boxes, and then adds a few boxes of its own. There is a candy-striped curtain, yards of red-white-and-blue bunting and, way back upstage, the glimmer of a mammoth tent. When circumstances require it, Mr. Mitchell is not averse to sending scenery flying from all directions, including the floor. Yet the set is more than a collection of pretty gimcracks. Its roseate, gaslight glow and golden crown of letters spelling out "America" suggest another, deeper entertainment: one that really explores the life and times of P. T. Barnum.
"Barnum" is not that musical. It is, in its hero's vernacular, "a humbug": a relentless flow of acts that provides the illusion of miracles rather than the miracles themselves. But if it is not the greatest show on earth - or even the greatest musical on 44th Street - "Barnum" and its crack ringleader nonetheless deliver an evening of pure, exhilarating fun.