Saturday, January 10, 2009

Theater review: Maltz Jupiter's 'Barnum' offers three rings of entertainment

Brad Oscar as the master of humbug himself
in Maltz Jupiter Theatre's Barnum.

By Hap Erstein

Barnum, the bouncy oom-pah band biographical musical, has been rarely revived since it first landed on Broadway in 1980, in part because of the circus skills required of its cast and the quadruple-threat abilities -- singing, dancing, acting and tightrope-walking -- needed by whoever is foolhardy enough to play three-ring big-top impresario, Phineas Taylor Barnum.

But having just produced Noises Off and Sleuth, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre again makes it clear that it is not about to shrink from a challenge. So in collaboration with Sarasota’s Asolo Repertory Theatre, it is currently offering the saga of Barnum, a life told as if it were a series of circus acts. Those who suppressed their childlike dreams of joining the circus are likely to have that urge renewed by the lively, colorful, thoroughly winning show now on view at the former dinner theater in north Palm Beach County.

The problematic casting of the title character has been triumphantly solved by Broadway veteran Brad Oscar, an ingratiating performer who plays Barnum with childlike enthusiasm. Best known for playing The Producers’ Max Bialystock over 1,300 times, his Barnum is a slightly more benign con artist, but an irrepressible scalawag nevertheless.

Chances are that Oscar could handle the aerial stunts that traditionally fall to the role, but director Gordon Greenberg has come up with a more theatrical solution, with shadow doubles for Barnum and his stick-in-the-mud wife Chairy. So when Barnum crosses a Rubicon to infidelity at the end of Act One, for instance, it is Matt Baker of Cirque du Soleil who traverses the stage on a tightrope. If there is a drawback to Baker’s effort, it is that he forgets to make the feat look difficult.

The Barnum name is synonymous with the circus, but as Mark Bramble’s script tells it, he did not meet and partner with Bailey on the iconic tent show until late in his life. Before then, Barnum spun various lies and “humbugs,” as a collector of museum oddities, a producer of road show extravaganzas and a minor political figure in his home state of Connecticut.

These sundry careers are brought to life in Cy Coleman’s brassy score and Michael Stewart’s tongue-in-cheek, patter lyrics. The contrast in outlooks between Barnum and his wife is represented by his affection for garish hues and her preference for more subdued tones. Those difference are expressed in such musical numbers as The Colors of My Life and Black and White, and made visual by Alejo Vietti’s eye-popping costumes and Michael Schweikardt’s rainbow-bold scenery.

Oscar dominates the evening, but Misty Cotton is a strong presence as Chairy, even if she is a party-pooper most of the time. Kevin Kraft is a one-man balancing act playing nine supporting roles, Debra Walton stands out as creaky-then-powerful 160-year-old Joice Heth and Renee Brna is a soaring soprano as Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind.

Like Barnum himself, the Maltz Jupiter is intent on being a crowd-pleaser and it succeeds with this bundle of bombast. Barnum may not be the most substantial show you will ever see, or even one of the best written, but it as much fun as a vintage circus. And with Oscar and company, this production is shameless in its eagerness to entertain theatergoers and send them home with a grin on their faces.

BARNUM, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Continuing through Jan. 25. Tickets: $30-$49. Call: (561) 575-2223.

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