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THEATER REVIEW : Audience Gets Taken for Great Ride : Musical about circus meister's storied life bursts with energy and holds audience's attention despite lack of substance.

August 04, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When you stop to think about it, it may not be the greatest show on earth, but "Barnum," the energetic musical loosely based on the life of the preeminent 19th-Century American showman, sets out to ensure that you never get the chance.

Even without the safety net of a particularly deep or engrossing story, the show offers enough visual sleights of hand to divert even the most discerning intellects.

In a way, that's entirely appropriate--spectacle, rather than substance, was the flashy signature throughout Phineas Taylor Barnum's checkered career as a street peddler, museum curator, road show impresario, politician and circus meister.

It was for this last incarnation that P. T. Barnum is best remembered today, and so the show's conceit is to decorate this unabashedly fanciful biography with an ensemble of carnival performers--clowns, jugglers, acrobats and the like.

Happily, director Jack Shouse and choreographer Michael Barnard have made the most of the strengths of "Barnum" with a vibrant, colorful staging for PCPA Theaterfest.

In the center ring is Gregg Coffin's engaging performance in the title role. Part visionary, part con man, and the supreme embodiment of our uniquely American brand of cheerful cynicism, Barnum parlayed his optimistic philosophy that "there's a sucker born every minute" into fame and fortune.

But he practiced his "Art of the Humbug" on such a grandiose scale that even his marks appreciated it as they were being taken. From his early inspiration to exhibit an allegedly 160-year-old woman as "George Washington's nurse" to the exaggerated claims that he made about his museum curiosities and touring attractions, Barnum refused to let his imagination be bound by the conventional tightrope of propriety.

Buoyed aloft by first-rate singing and dancing acrobatics, Coffin treads Barnum's moral ambiguities with the greatest of ease, combining irresistible wide-eyed exuberance, quick wit and a self-deprecating amusement at his own excesses.

In place of bland accuracy, he offers the alchemy of thrills and excitement. Consciously articulating this stance to his sober, conservative wife, Charity (Kitty Balay), in "The Colors of My Life," Barnum transforms the everyday world with corny magic tricks as he sings, turning lemonade into red wine and a white napkin into a crimson scarf. In the later "Black and White," after trying to abide by traditional politics, Barnum's drab mayoral campaign bursts hilariously into peacock bloom--and victory.

The thrust of Mark Bramble's book and Michael Stewart's lyrics is to play the gaudy hues of Barnum's life against the muted grays of placid Americana, but that social backdrop isn't defined clearly enough to allow for an engaging dynamic (such as Meredith Willson achieved with the similarly themed "The Music Man," for example).

"Barnum" is all foreground, right down to Cy Coleman's brassy, big top score, which barely lets the few serious moments register before revving back up to high-wire pitch.

Oh, well, the show must go on--which it does with delightful spunk. But after the fat lady sings, don't be surprised if you find yourself wondering if you've been taken at some level, like so many of P. T. Barnum's patrons before you.

Details

* WHAT: "Barnum."

* WHEN: Through Aug. 13, Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m.

* WHERE: Festival Theatre, 420 2nd St., Solvang.

* COST: $12 to $18.

* FYI: For reservations or information, call (800) 549-PCPA.

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