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Barnum
Musical Theatre Southwest

Also see Rob's reviews of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and Up (The Man in the Flying Chair)


Angie Alley, Angel Page, Jack Lovell, Kelly O'Keefe, Stephanie Burch, Jordon Embree with Erick Seelinger as Barnum on his shoulders, Shirley Roach, Lillith Determan and Jeff Chavez
Musical Theatre Southwest's production of Barnum, performing at the African American Performing Arts Center, is an ambitious project, indeed. In essence, Barnum is a biographical musical that follows the career of P. T. Barnum who has become the archetype of the circus. What is performed is nothing less than the circus itself; most of the actors perform circus-type gimmicks and stunts throughout and it becomes a one of a kind musical experience.

Beginning with the song "There's a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute" (score is by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart) we get a sense that maybe our hero is more of an antihero. Whether or not we think his "humbug's a blessing or a curse," it doesn't matter because we're suckers and he's out to make money off us. With strong charisma and a unique talent for malarky, he sucks us into buying his bag of tricks—and we like it. What he presents us is total baloney, but it's so much fun that it's impossible to turn away. We watch as his collection of oddities, spectacles, and freaks grows and we're introduced to memorable characters such as Joice Heth, whom he touted as the oldest woman in the world; General Tom Thumb, who was 25 inches from toe to crown; and the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, a world famous opera soprano.

Through Mark Bramble's book, Barnum eventually reveals itself to be a love story between the man and his wife, Charity. "Chairy," as she's called, is the complete and utter opposite of her husband. She's logical and modest yet loves and supports her husband in his ambitions. "The Colors of My Life" displays the struggle in their marriage yet affirms their love for each other.

Erick Seelinger plays Barnum well, though has a little trouble keeping pace with the fast-talking nature of the songs and the role itself. He is charismatic and a strong presence on stage but should work on cleaning up some kinks in his performance. Wendy Barker as Charity is the most likeable character on stage at all times. Her role makes her an almost tragic heroine. Barker's performance is the most believable; I had a hard time keeping my eyes dry during her laments and humble sufferings. Zane Barker, who keeps the production going as the performance's own Ringmaster, also plays James Bailey who at the end, convinces Barnum to continue with his dreams and ushers in the hero's last triumph. Zane, like Seelinger, would do well to give his performance a bit more zing. Seelinger's wife Claire, a powerful performer with a beautiful voice, plays Jenny Lind.

The other performances are satisfying and fun to watch as the actors perform circus tricks such as juggling and clowning. The ensemble supports the principle actors well and helps to make the transitions clean. As hard as the tricks and gimmicks are to perform, I unfortunately got a sense that the actors are out of their comfort zone. Many a time it comes across that the actors aren't as comfortable balancing on balls, juggling, or plate balancing as one would hope.

It is my opinion that the performance space does not do the production justice. Barnum is supposed to be a high-octane spectacle and at the same time an intimate musical, and he small stage has a hard time accommodating the kind of spectacle that you would expect. What we get instead feels a little suffocated. Nevertheless, there are some impressive feats accomplished on stage.

Musical Theatre Southwest certainly makes a complete experience, from the minute you walk in the door to the lobby to the time you leave. It's a beautiful musical—I mean it's Cy Coleman after all. And, whether you think it's a blessing or a curse, you'll leave a "sucker" and you won't feel too bad about it.

Musical Theatre Southwest's Barnum, through December 29th at African American Performing Arts Center, 310 San Pedro Dr NE, Albuquerque. For ticket and schedule information, call 505-265-9119 or visit www.musicaltheatresw.com.


Photo: Jason Ponic

--Caleb Scales



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