Pegasus Players

At the end of the first act of Barnum, Phineas Taylor Barnum ascends a tightrope and walks daringly across it to the woman waiting for him at the other end. Reaching her after several tries, he clasps her hand and bows with a grand flourish as a chorus of circus performers fill the stage to celebrate his feat; the audience can’t help but applaud his pluck and prowess as a swirl of color, movement, and happy music wraps up the scene. Yet what the audience is applauding is adultery–impresario Barnum’s decision to betray his loving, constant, and beautiful wife Chairy and have an affair with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, whose debut American tour he is presenting.

It’s a fascinating moment, jubilant and ugly in what it shows and in the way it invites the audience’s involvement and approval. Barnum is filled with such moments, as composer Cy Coleman, lyricist Michael Stewart, and librettist Mark Bramble trace the fascinating career of the man who proudly accepted the title “Prince of Humbugs.” Born in 1810, Barnum started out as a lottery ticket salesman and achieved worldwide fame in the 1840s with his American Museum, whose “exhibits” included the original bearded lady, two “wild men from Borneo” (two black brothers from Brooklyn), actual Indian chiefs (who, having come east to meet President Lincoln, agreed to greet museum crowds without realizing Barnum was charging admission), and the 23-inch midget Charlie Stratton (aka General Tom Thumb); having developed the museum into an international road show, he went into the urban development business before winding up in partnership with circus entrepreneur James Bailey as proprietors of the Greatest Show on Earth. His famous last words before he died in 1891 at the age of 81 were “Ask Bailey what the box office was at the Garden last night.”

Coleman, Stewart, and Bramble’s musical, originally shaped by veteran Broadway director Joe Layton, uses the format of a circus to tell the story of a circus master, just as Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line fused standard musical-comedy routines with unorthodox story telling to depict the tough and troubled lives of dancers. In this case, the nonstop clowning, acrobatics, and song-and-dance routines that make Barnum a splashy family entertainment relate the story of a man whose career embodies the sleaziest and most hypocritical elements of American show business. So when Barnum proudly proclaims himself a master of humbug, he does so in a rousing song whose title–“There Is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute”–rubs its singer’s contempt for his audience right in their willing faces. When he buys an elderly black slave and promotes her as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington–a “patriotic humbug,” Barnum freely acknowledges–the old woman kicks up her heels in a buoyant (if musically anachronistic) ragtime number, “Thank God I’m Old.” And when the risk-loving Barnum faces off for one of his many arguments with his practical-minded wife, he does so like an animal tamer in a circus ring, while a whip-wielding ringmaster announces Barnum’s battle “versus the female of the species.” (Barnum himself, meanwhile, refers to his conversations with Chairy as his “marital humbugs.”)

Surrounding the story of this lying, womanizing charlatan with a parade of eye-catching activity, Barnum invites its audience to consider the relationship between the showman and the show–as well as the public’s susceptibility to people like Barnum, who exploit us as they entertain us. (How appropriate that it premiered on Broadway in 1980, the same year Ronald Reagan was elected president; Barnum’s habit of casually twisting fact into more impressive fiction remarkably recalls Reagan, as does Barnum’s career switch from show biz to politics at the urging of his wife.)

But when its darker levels are ignored, Barnum’s surface pleasures provide only modest diversion, which is what happpens here, in Victoria Bussert’s staging of the work, running at Pegasus Players prior to setting off on a national tour. Bussert’s Barnum (like her touring Into the Woods last season) is pleasant and playful entertainment; but it lacks the grit that it’s capable of.

Bussert consistently soft-pedals the material, treating the complexities of the central characters with two-dimensional kiddie-show sentimentality. The relationship between Barnum and Chairy never for a second suggests any real tension, despite the script’s frequent references to how the dreamer Barnum chafes under his wife’s pressure to lead a more secure, normal family life. Smoothing away Chairy’s rough edges makes Barnum’s infidelity arbitrary and almost inexcusable; and the warm greeting Chairy gives Barnum when he returns to her after breaking off with Jenny makes Chairy nearly impossible to respect, despite the warmth of Rebecca McCauley’s beautifully sung performance.

Barnum himself, meanwhile, emerges in David Mendes’s likable but low-key portrayal as a far less interesting character than even a cursory reading of his life suggests. Mendes defuses his character’s unsavory actions and obsessive impulses with a charm that deflects our contempt but also our concern; we simply don’t care much if his show-biz innovations (or his relationships with women) will succeed or fail. Mendes is capable of more–judging from his Charlie Chaplin character in the Set Gourmet Theatre’s Tintypes earlier this year.

This production goes for candy coating on every level–from the deliciously fruity colors of Russ Borski’s one-ring circus setting and Diane Ferry Williams’s lighting design to the piping, playful textures of the score, cleverly orchestrated by Judy Brown and played by a three-piece keyboard and percussion ensemble expertly led by Dan Sticco, to the beaming smiles and broadly made-up faces of the energetic and impressively versatile chorus (circus technician Bruce Block, somersault specialist Angela Beutel, and rich-voiced Patricia Pendleton make especially strong impressions). But by ignoring the tart taste under Barnum’s sugary shell, this production left this viewer feeling, well, suckered.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.