REVIEW: Barnum, UK Tour ✭✭

Barnum starring Brian Conley touring the UK
Photo: Johan Persson

Churchill Theatre, Bromley : UK Tour
18 March 2015
2 Stars

Imagine, if you will, the sound of metal being dragged along concrete. Or the sound of Lee Marvin, tunelessly masticating the music in I Was Born Under A Wandering Star. That hollow, reverberating, deathly, atonal sound. Got that sound in your head? It is not the sound you expect to hear, song after song, from the leading man in a musical is it?

Yet, that is precisely the kind of sound produced by Brian Conley in his star turn in Barnum which is now playing at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley as part of its UK tour. Precisely that sound, one that makes Harvey Fierstein sound like Howard Keel by comparison.

You know you are in trouble when the performer playing Tom Thumb turns in the most accomplished turn in a performance of Barnum. But that is the case here.

It is quite unfathomable how this came to happen. This production began its life in Chichester, when it was polished, invigorating, thrilling and bursting with heart. (Read our Chichester review). It had a very different book there, though, and the overall approach was entirely different. It was cast with people who could all act, sing and dance and played with real verve.

Cameron Mackintosh, however, did not approve of that production, a matter made clear by a Channel 4 documentary series, The Sound of Musicals, which revealed some of the backstage machinations, and the difficulties the then production team had with Mackintosh and his vision for the show. It’s not exactly clear what Mackintosh’s issue was, but it seemed, unfathomably, to centre on some disaffection with the performance of Christopher Fitzgerald, whose Barnum was a more complex, more interesting, more complete, and less “look at me showing off” character than might have been expected. The result was that the Chichester production did not transfer and Mackintosh announced that a recast and remounted version would tour the UK.

So, the touring version now in Bromley is the Mackintosh approved version of Barnum (he even revised the text with original author Mark Bramble), one that hearkens back to the original 1980’s productions which starred, on Broadway, Jim Dale and Glenn Close and, in the West End, Michael Crawford. Like them, the core of this production is a showy, stylish star with a fine line in shtick; unlike them, it is almost entirely unmusical.

The programme reminds that when Barnum premiered on Broadway there was a serious issue with the orchestrations of Cy Coleman’s bright and brassy score: “They were all demented versions of ‘turkey in the straw’ twang-y, fiddle-heavy, nightmarish and entirely unusable”. Stephen Metcalfe’s adaptations of the William David Brohn orchestrations here may not be demented, but they rob the music of its joyous possibility and produce a flat, bland and synthetic shroud for every note and tune.

Nothing about the score is assisted by Ian Townsend’s musical direction, Mike Potter’s sound design or the playing from the ten piece band. The score needs brisk, bouncy tempi in most of the production numbers but also revels in a languid beat when dramatically appropriate; middle of the road speed is no use to anyone. One Brick At A Time is just too slow to be the spirited showstopper it can be; there is no point to doing The Museum Song, one of the cleverest, most fiendish, patter solos to be found in a musical, unless it is done with exemplary enunciation at a cracking pace which can then be accelerated to stupendous effect. It is not a number for a safe trot.

Whether it is the playing or the sound, the percussive big band pulse which supports, characterises, and defines numbers like Come Follow The Band and Join The Circus is all but absent. There is just no precision, no assured rhythmical core, with the result that Coleman’s score, as played, lacks the brilliant fizz and fervour which makes it stand out.

For the most part, the singing does not assist. When the exceptions come, they stick out, arrest attention, give a glimpse of what Barnum could be. Mikey Jay-Heath is superb as Tom Thumb and his big number, Bigger Isn’t Better, is wonderful in every way. Jay-Heath sings with great skill, dances energetically and with precise, clean line so that his energy and ability floods the stage. Landi Oshinowa displays great vocal chops, twice. Her Joyce Heth number, Thank God I’m Old, is vocally aglow and her second Act number, Black and White, is a solid jazz/blues number which is a welcome oasis in a sea of near-dead vocal performances.

The problem is not with the Ensemble, who are a gifted, hard-working and energetic bunch, who sing lustily and give good measure to both harmony and melody. The sound they produce in the big numbers, even while putting their all into Andrew Wright’s exuberant, captivating and very physical choreography, is excellent and full-bodied. Occasionally, they skip ahead of the lacklustre beat in their efforts to do full justice to the steps and the songs; this does not reflect badly on them, but rather shows that the faults here lie, not just with the stars, but in the pit.

The stars. To give him his due, Brian Conley has little difficulty with the showman aspects of the role: he effortlessly banters with the audience, performs magic tricks with style, swallows some flames, lands hearty laughs, manages the tricky tightrope walk on the third attempt, and indulges in the glib snake-oil salesman tactics which mark out his Barnum as the consummate entrepreneur. On the surface, Conley is a terrific P T Barnum.

But, for the musical to work, as a musical, there must be heart underneath the glitzy exterior, substance under the style. An ability to sing is also useful. Conley doesn’t deliver heart or substance, his acting is shallow, and he definitely can’t sing, not even in a Rex Harrison kind of way. So the musical aspects, the spine of the piece, simply cannot work.

Neither Linzi Hateley as Chairy Barnum or Kimberley Blake as Jenny Lind rise to the occasion either. Both are one dimensional, clinical and more than a little dull. Neither have any chemistry with Conley, although they are not to blame for that. There is a deal of out of tune singing too, especially from Blake, which is unfortunate given that Lind is meant to be the best singer in the world. It is hard not to feel sorry for Hateley; her duets with Conley are delicate and reflective, but Conley’s rasping puts paid – entirely – to them being as they should be.

There are some terrific cameos from Nick Butcher and Edward Wade, both of whom are accomplished triple-threats with bright futures. Outstanding ensemble members, unflagging in terms of focussed energy and vocal ability, included Courtney-Mae Briggs, Louis Stockil, Jennifer Robinson, Georgie Ashford and Silvia Dopazo. David Birch plays Wilton very assuredly and is another excellent singer/dancer in the set pieces.

The whole ensemble works well together, moving sets, providing appropriate dramatic and vocal support, and dancing with a zest and commitment which is powerful and engaging. The circus work they do, with the help of Juliette Hardy-Donaldson, is impressive and full of fun. Twirling, tumbling, jumping, leaping, rolling, stilt-work and gyrations of every kind: it’s a circus full of sleek, slick moves and tricks. Their work in Black and White, Come Follow The Band and Join The Circus was delicious to behold.

The set and costumes from Scott Pask, Paul Wills and Lone Schacksen, are colourful and appropriate and set the mood for the tale of ringside frenzy and humbugging perfectly. The set is not always lit well and there is a constant muted effect which seems puzzling, but in step with the musicality of the accompaniment.

This is not Barnum at its best. It is hard to know what director Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy is doing. It’s not a patch on the warm, beguiling production seen at Chichester. The audience with whom I saw it seemed to enjoy it well enough, but that must be more about the (considerable) inherent qualities of the story and score, and the unflagging spirit of the ensemble, not the central performances. Either that, or they have nothing to which to compare this version.

This Barnum is Tom Thumb’s show. And how often do you get to say that?

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