Presented by MoonBox Productions
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Michael Stewart
Book by Mark Bramble
Directed and Choreographed by Rachel Bertone
Musical Direction by Dan Rodriguez
Circus Arts/Aerial Choreography by Ellen Waylonis
Review by Danielle Rosvally
(Boston, MA) There’s hardly a figure in American History with a life more colorful than showman and notorious Humbug Phineas Taylor Barnum. The exaggerations and theatrical tall-tales that are hallmark of Musical Theatre find no palette more suited than the true facts of P.T.’s exploits. It’s therefore small wonder that these exploits became a musical in 1980 (titled, appropriately, Barnum). What is astounding is the fact that Moonbox was able to match the schmaltz and pizzazz require to bring a true eighties style musical to light and life in full vibrant color at the BCA.
You won’t be singing the music of Barnum when you leave the theatre, and the text itself is a bit clunky. For that, you will walk away thoroughly entertained by the energetic talent that brings this show to life. Todd Yard perfectly blends charm, charisma, and used car salesman as the notorious Barnum. Shonna Cirone is his perfect foil in the role of Chairy Barnum: powerful, not to be tinkered with, and yet soft and sage. Jessica Kundla simply stole the show as diva Jenny Lind with her incredible operatic soprano and uncanny ability to speak both Swedish and Swedish-inflected English.
The rest of the cast in their various ensemble roles, floating in and out of the story as both chorus members and names characters, create a powerhouse force of theatrical talent. Singing, dancing, and performing feats of acrobatic skill; juggling everything from their multitude of roles to each other; these performers have incredible energy from lights up to lights down. In order to execute such daring feats (and also live truthfully under the artifice of the circus), the actors underwent training at Esh circus school as part of the rehearsal process. It was clear that they were comfortable in the stunts they were asked to perform, which speaks volumes for circus arts consultant/aerial choreographer Ellen Waylonis and her work on the production. It’s one thing to teach choreography to students who already have a base knowledge level, and it’s another to train students in an art and then work with them such that they perform confidently even under the stress of the limelight.
Costumes by Marian Bertone were simply perfect; colorful when necessary, evoking both the show’s period and a sense of modern whimsy. They added well-fleshed elements of character, time, and place, creating fully-rounded figures out of the people onstage. The sets by Cameron McEachern were similarly well done; minimalistic and simultaneously evocative. This circus had everything it needed to come alive before our eyes; nothing more, and nothing less.
There was one glaring issue I saw with the show, and that has more to do with dramaturgical handling than anything else. Barnum tells the story of P.T. Barnum’s life and therefore necessarily tackles certain elements of nineteenth century living that are deeply problematic to contemporary sensibilities namely: slavery. Barnum’s first con was the purchase and display of a slave named Joice Heth (played by Carla Martinez). Barnum trumped up Heth as the “nursemaid of George Washington,” and “the oldest woman in the world,” and audiences flocked to hear tales of “little Georgie” at Heth’s knee. Barnum the musical depicts the sale of Heth as well as Barnum’s dealings with her, and her interactions with the public. Since the musical was written in the eighties, it doesn’t handle this particular issue very sensitively and blithely meanders through the story. In Moonbox’s production, Barnum purchases Heth, encourages her to dance, and threatens that she will go hungry if she doesn’t lie to the public. This is followed by Heth singing a joyous tune about how great it is to be old, and her adoring “audience members” dancing along with her.
I’m not saying that the director should have adapted this piece to fit modern sensibilities, or that she should have interrupted the performance in any way to deal with this textual difficulty, but I do think that it’s deeply problematic to pretend this issue doesn’t exist (particularly when Heth was played by the single cast member of color in an otherwise all-white production). It’s not addressed in the director’s note or the dramaturge’s note, which would have been perfect opportunities to acknowledge and honor the historical baggage that comes along with this part of Barnum’s story. It was disappointing that the company chose to try and gloss over this, effectively attempting to erase the very history they were compelled to present. Such attempts at erasure are what invariably lead to historical white-washing, and in this case quite literally profit-making off of such white-washing. It is my hope that Moonbox can more thoughtfully handle these issues in the future, and perhaps direct some of their seemingly boundless energy towards rectifying this glaring dramaturgical issue.
Barnum is definitely worth a trip downtown, dramaturgy aside. Come for the musical, stay for the circus, and be ready for some incredible local-to-Boston musical theatre talent.
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