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Chicago by John Olson

Barnum
Quest Theatre Ensemble

Also see John's reviews of Dating Walter Dante and American Idiot

Barnum
Jason Bowen and Ensemble
There are many things one might expect to find in a church school basement—coffee, donuts, Sunday school materials—but not a full-scale production of a Broadway musical, and one which was known for its spectacle at that. The 1980 musical biography of circus pioneer P.T. Barnum calls for jugglers, plate balancers, horses and an elephant—and the Quest Ensemble production delivers all of them. Granted, their basement below the school gymnasium (which unfortunately enough, has the thumping of basketball games going on above) is not a high tech space with elaborate lighting equipment, but they fill it with so many imaginatively designed pieces it doesn't need to be. Andrew Park's production of the Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart Mark Bramble musical once again delivers on Quest's signature visual design. Emma Weber has provided a wardrobe of costumes for the circus performers as well as mid-19th century American street clothes.

All of this design is more than matched by the performers on stage. Park has assembled a cast that can dance, do gymnastic flips, play musical instruments, walk on stilts and, apparently, even balance spinning plates (though that might have been stagecraft—in any event, I was fooled). They dance bouncily in David Leef's choreography, and Park has cast a bona fide opera singer, Rachel Sparrow, to play Barnum's "Swedish Nightingale," Jenny Lind. She does a lovely job with her solo "Love Makes Such Fools of Us All." Leading the troupe are very fine performances by Jason Bowen as Barnum, Laura Sturm as his wife Chairy, and David Hathway as the Ringmaster and others. Bowen has played extroverted and flamboyant characters on the Quest stage before, here he does all of that, but provides quiet moments for Barnum as well. He and the entire cast give the charming and typically Coleman upbeat songs a terrific reading, under the musical direction of Tobi Mattingly and her five-piece orchestra. Sturm provides a highly nuanced portrayal of the wife who matched Barnum in intellect and intuition—in other words, she was no sucker for his schemes. Sturm's an excellent singer as well and ought to be doing way more musicals in Chicago. Hathway has energy and smiles to spare as the Ringmaster who narrates the story—which in Bramble's book frames Barnum's story (with which Bramble took many liberties) as an act of its own. He leads a strong rendition of the second act opener "Come Follow the Band" and even does a few cartwheels to boot.

As nice as it is for a performer to be cast in a lead role, I suspect this is a show where it's more fun to be in the ensemble. They get all the great costumes and magical puppetry moments, as well as the chance to do circus tricks and gymnastics. Plus, there are several featured spots of note. Kyle Kuhlman is a delightful Tom Thumb, singing "Bigger Isn't Better" and dancing from a giant chair; Erin White delivers a wry comic turn as Joice Heth, Barnum's supposed 160-year-old woman; and Tamara White is a sultry blues singer.

Bramble's book is no great script. It loosely ties together Barnum's major achievements: his American Museum (put together cleverly here in "One Brick at a Time" through Rupard's set and Sturm's vocals), his promotion of Jenny Lind, his political career and the founding of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The best that can be said is the dialogue is serviceable enough for the cast to deliver it convincingly and get from song to song. The score is filled with songs that are lesser known than Coleman's standards, but are as appealing and infectious as Wildcat's "Hey Look Me Over" and Sweet Charity's "I'm a Brass Band."It also includes two lovely duets for the Barnums, "The Colors of My Life" and "I Like Your Style," which has a real 19th-century American folk flavor to it. The show's finale, "Join the Circus," underscores Barnum and Bailey's founding of their circus, but it works as a celebration of the circus spirit which the production has entirely earned. Park's direction understands that's exactly what this show is about and has wisely let the melodies and spectacle carry the day.

There's a subtext to "Join the Circus" as well. Program notes reveal that Quest's longtime designer Nick Rupard has done just that, and is now working for a small circus in Sarasota, Florida, as an elephant technician. I guess he knew what he was in for—his cutout elephant here even includes a simulated elephant dropping. Even so, the two hours spent with this joyous production are enough to tempt us to follow his lead.

Barnum will be performed at The Blue Theatre, 1609 West Gregory, Chicago, through March 18, 2012. All Quest shows are free of charge, though donations are appreciated. Reservations are highly recommended and can be requested by emailing reservations@questensemble.org or calling 312-458-0895. For more information, visit www.questensemble.org.


Photo: Braxton Black

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-- John Olson



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