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Review Round-Up: Mixed bag for Barnum

Chichester Festival Theatre's revival of circus extravaganza Barnum, in its new temporary 1,400 seat 'big top', opened to press last week (24 July 2013)

Christopher Fitzgerald and company
© Michael Le Poer Trench

Maxwell Cooter

... every available inch of space, horizontal and vertical is employed... if you miss a juggler, a trapeze artist will bounce above your head minutes later... If the piece is short on plot, it does offer a host of tuneful Cy Coleman songs... and does contain an excellent central performance by Christopher Fitzgerald as the publicity-loving, scheming, Barnum. He's a constant ball of energy, displaying a variety of show business skills including a climactic display of tightrope walking. It's an attractive performance, and he has a natural affinity with the audience which helps mask the lack of a strong singing voice. Barnum is an engaging romp with some decent songs and some strong central performances, but they're not enough to sustain one of the weaker musicals that Chichester has staged recently.

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

... I struggled to warm entirely to the two leads, although there can be no doubting that Fitzgerald works his stripy socks off... Any actor who can not only tightrope walk but also sing while he's doing it is heartily to be commended. Nonetheless, it's a tough role and there are times when the strain shows. The songs, by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart, are as sweetly memorable as ever, with the haunting melody "The Colors of My Life" particularly striking. A series of swirlingly impressionistic scenes... becomes occasionally too pell-mell. Yet the circus finale is spectacular and it's constantly amusing to watch the troupe hover nimbly around the Barnums as they once more flip the coin that never lands on tails.

Michael Billington

... What is frustrating is that the life of the 19th-century showman PT Barnum is full of fascinating contradictions... But all too little of this is explored in Mark Bramble's anorexic book... New York actor Christopher Fitzgerald, is a spry, twinkling, nimble-footed figure who works hard to make us like a man whose life was devoted to flim-flam and defrauding the public. He just about succeeds but it's a close-run thing... The cast whirl, twirl, tumble with great abandon and even obligingly lie on their backs to balance objects of furniture. It is all very jolly but, in the end, it suckers us into believing we have seen a real musical rather than a razzle-dazzle entertainment lacking in heart and soul.

Nick Butcher in Barnum
© Michael Le Poer Trench

Dominic Cavendish
Daily Telegraph

... About Cy Coleman's music and Michael Stewart's lyrics, which brilliantly conjure spit and sawdust romance and old-fashioned razzmatazz, there can be few complaints. And Timothy Sheader's tightly drilled, compactly designed and wholesomely acrobatic production is unstinting in its energy and euphoria levels. But even the gasp-inducing highlight, worth the price of admission alone, in which Fitzgerald treads a tight-rope, singing as he goes, can't disguise the lack of dramatic jeopardy in Mark Bramble's flimsy book. The most testing facet of the story -Barnum's affair with a dazzling Swedish singer - is little more than a sideshow. Hats off to co-producer Cameron Mackintosh for helping cheer Chichester audiences over the summer. Whether he'd be wise to transfer this anywhere less authentically atmospheric is another question.

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

... Christopher Fitzgerald has an impish charm as 19th-century American showman Phineas T. Barnum... Tamsin Carroll is endearing as Barnum's sweet if unconvincingly tolerant wife Chairy... The opening is decidedly gluey and the razzmatazz levels could be cranked up by at least a quarter... Director Timothy Sheader is not entirely to blame for the sluggish start. Writer Mark Bramble, who has worked on this version with Sir Cameron, gives the performers too little clay in the opening scene...Will this show move to London? It needs some rewriting. The love affair is under- explored and some stuff about Barnum's political career comes out of nowhere. Yet the music deserves a wider airing and the lead actors give it their all. If you live near Chichester, it makes for a fair night out.

Kate Bassett

... To be frank, Barnum strikes me, largely, as guff. Cy Coleman's numbers sound like circus classics regurgitated, with pooting tubas and bass drums. Mark Bramble's book is little more than a checklist of events, dramatising virtually nothing... I just wish the production wasn't mind-numbing. The director Timothy Sheader tries his darnedest to make it spectacular fun, with a grinning chorus of trampolining acrobats, aerialists tossing flares, and ginormous elephants' legs dropping from above. Fitzgerald, working his socks off, nimbly walks a tightrope. Nonetheless, I was bored rigid. I'm afraid the whoops of the opening-night crowd merely made me wonder if Phineas had underestimated the birth rate.