Playwright: music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, book by Mark Bramble. At: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-325-1700; www.mercurytheaterchicago.com; $25-$59. Runs through: June 16
It should go without saying that when you tell a story within the framework of a musical, a portion of the story must be set aside to make room for the musicand when the story revolves around the man who invented the panoramic vaudeville that defined the circus in America, even more narrative must be excised to make room for illustrations of the product now constituting his legacy. So if you're looking to learn more about the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum from this Broadway-style bio than you learned about that of our seventh president in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, look elsewhere.
P.T. Barnum wasn't a huckster in the criminal sense, but instead a master of hypemarketing foreign-born soprano Jenny Lind as "The Swedish Nightingale," for examplewith a talent for manipulating his customers' imaginations. The blame for their disappointment when the promised reward fell short of expectations lay not with the advertiser, but with the gullible consumers (who didn't know, to cite another legendary hoax, that the sign reading "This Way to the Egress" meant that they were exiting the building and would have to pay a second admission to re-enter). The irony was that the famous "Prince of Humbug" was a morally upright citizen in private lifeadvocating abolition, women's rights and temperanceand remaining constant to a wife as level-headed as he was mercurial, even as he squired his show's songbird (and star attraction) to public events.
This is not the story that Cy Coleman, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble want to tell, however. Their account of a career spanning nearly a century is presented as a circus (you can even get popcorn in the Mercury Theater lobby), replete with the kaleidoscopic spectacle associated with that entertainment genre. Scenes are bridged with dazzling tumblers, unicyclists, web dancers and human pyramids, courtesy of Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi and the Actors' Gymnasium. Joanna Iwanicka's parachute-silk elephant boasts a prehensile trunk for sitting or vaulting. The construction of Barnum's American Museum is illustrated by a work song titled "One Brick At A Time" and accompanied by an agile cigar-box toss encompassing the entire cast and the entire stage. There are a few sentimental balladsnotably, "The Colors of My Life," a sweet anthem to marital affectionfor Cory Goodrich, playing the crusading Mrs. Charity Barnum, to strut her stuff, as well as showstopping solo vocals by Summer Naomi Smart and Donica Lynn, but these somber moments are quickly dispelled by a ragtime, march or soft-shoe.
This family-friendly cotton-candy fluffy carnival is a perfect opportunity to usher in the warm weather. It may be still too early for excursions under the Big Top, but see if you're not tempted, yourself, to heed the finale's exhortation to "join the circus."