Barnum at the Bristol Hippodrome is obviously a passion project for its producer Cameron Mackintosh. After a sniffily received production at Chichester, which aborted its West End plans, (and so fascinatingly showcased in Channel 4's Sound of The Musicals) its returned a year later reconceived under new direction and with Brian Conley as the circus showmen.
The good news first, Brian Conley brings star wattage as Phineas T Barnum, what he lacks as a singer in his surprisingly rasp voice, he more then makes up for in his effortless showman charm. He has the audience eating out of his hand from the word go. It's a performance that seems to blend two characters together; PT Barnum the circus impresario and Brian Conley the variety man. His asides to the audience, the knowing looks seem to suggest that it's the actor talking to us rather than the character; he's in a different production then anyone else but it works.
Its also blessed with first class choreography from Andrew Wright. His work in Singing In The Rain was deliriously wonderful, the work here almost matches that. He is a choreographer and director much in demand at the moment, its little wonder when he is creating such top class work. His ensemble are athletic and graceful and also pull off the copious amount of circus work required of them. They are a hard working bunch, juggling and pulling off acrobatic feats in the stalls before the show begins, providing an ever-watching chorus as the action plays out around them and providing enough blinding smiles to warm even the toughest cynic.
As you would expect Mackintiosh throws everything at the show, its glitzy and epic in scale but it doesn't escape the thinness of the book by Mark Bramble or the relative lack of big tunes by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart. A musical that follows a man following his dreams has the potential but it seems a fairly straightforward journey, there are some obstacles in his way but they are minor irritations rather then mountains to climb. You'll know 'Come Follow The Band', 'Join The Circus' ‘There's A Sucker Born Every Minute' and 'The Colours of My Life' but even these are serviceable songs rather then game changers. Everything else doesn't even come close.
Linzi Hatelyhas the comic timing and acting chops in the part of Chairy, Barnum's wife, but the role is a cipher rather then flesh and blood. Strong impressions in cameo roles include Kimberly Blake as the opera singer Barnum runs off with, Landi Oshinowo as the oldest women in the world who still has a trick or two in her and Mikey Jay-Heath who brings the house down in his three minutes of fame as the little Tom Thumb.
The tours eventual hoped for destination one presumes is the West End. Don't bet against it even for its flaws, we have our own version of PT Barnum in Cameron Mackintosh and he can create his own brand of magic.
Barnum plays at the Bristol Hippodrome until the 27th September and then tours until the 1st August 2015