Barnum at the Mercury Theater | Theater review
The production can’t re-create Barnum’s maximalist aesthetic but manages to suggest it.
The modest confines of the Mercury Theater are an unlikely setting for this 1980 musical about circus impresario and all-American flimflam salesman PT Barnum—a man who didn’t have a modest bone in his body. Everything about his “Greatest Show on Earth” was designed not just to entertain spectators but to overwhelm them with colors, curiosities and a cast of thousands, including clowns, acrobats and an enormous elephant named Jumbo.
Director L. Walter Stearns doesn’t have enough space to faithfully re-create Barnum’s maximalist aesthetic, but he does manage to suggest it by keeping his hammy, hardworking cast moving at all times. They tumble, juggle, ride unicycles, operate puppets, do sleight-of-hand tricks and even pull off some aerial acrobatics (circus choreography by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi of the Actors Gymnasium). Though the players occasionally struggle in their efforts, the maelstrom of activity—along with Cy Coleman’s rousing score—keeps things lively and makes a 14-member ensemble seem to double in size.
It also helps distract from Mark Bramble’s paper-thin book, which has no conflict to speak of and merely grazes its subject’s surface. Barnum is presented as a man whose insincerity is so absolute it becomes a substitute for truth, but any negative implications of that, beyond lovable caddishness, go unexplored. In the title role, Gene Weygandt conveys the sunny affability of the showman but misses the bumptious sleaziness of the charlatan.