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Children's Theater Review : Gullibility Not Required: 'Barnum' Is a Born Charmer

August 17, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WESTMINSTER — The world of Phineas Taylor Barnum was a world created for the child in all of us. Whether they admit it or not, people love to be fooled, to believe in humbug.

*

So if the musical "Barnum" is in large portions humbug, that's just fine, and probably is one of the reasons the play is becoming so popular with youth theaters. It offers the colors and shapes of the very sort of magic with which P.T. would awe his circus audiences a century ago. It was the era of the lovable scamp, "Peck's Bad Boy" and the Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford stories, of scams that turned out well. It was America in its teen years, and it was fun. Kids understand it all.

The Orange County Children's Theatre is presenting "Barnum" at the Westminster Cultural Arts Center, and though none of the cast is over 18, the very adult story of Barnum's career and bumpy marriage is clearly and cleverly assumed under the energetic direction of Dave and Claudia Hall and has been choreographed with imagination by John Accursi.

What this show can't do without, of course, is a Barnum, the center ring around which everything happens. Matthew Levine, who plays the Prince of Humbug, is 14 years old, but you'd never know it. He has a solid understanding of Barnum's ability to scam the public, respect for Barnum's knack for twisting his practical wife around his little finger and a top-notch singing voice. There's also the little matter of capturing the flavor of the vaudeville-tinted musical numbers, which Levine has done with apparent ease and a great deal of pizazz.

Allessandra Stewart is excellent as wife Charity, often disapproving but always adoring. Her self-contained, good-humored approach to her husband's flights of fancy is admirable. Other standouts in the very large cast include Chris Stewart, charming as General Tom Thumb; Trevor Brackney, properly energetic as the bravado Ringmaster; Billy Shapiro, properly officious as Amos Scudder; Andrea Hough, lyrical and stylish as Jenny Lind and, in the ensemble, a firecracker named Scott Weber whose generic clown costume can't hide his unbounded joy in entertaining, which he does expertly, whether swaggering across the stage or tossing himself with abandon into the air above it.

* "Barnum," Westminster Cultural Arts Center, Hoover Street and Westminster Boulevard, Westminster. Friday at 1 & 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 & 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $5. (714) 502-2244. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Matthew Levine: Phineas Taylor Barnum

Allessandra Stewart: Charity Barnum

Andrea Hough: Jenny Lind

Chris Stewart: General Tom Thumb

Trevor Brackney: Ringmaster

Billy Shapiro: Amos Scudder

Scott Weber: Ma Ga Bo

An Orange County Children's Theatre production, directed by Dave and Claudia Hall. Choreography: John Accursi. Vocal director: Jean Turrell. Costume design: Gena Strelow. Lighting design: Daryn Mack. Hair design: Suzan Myers. Stage managers: Danielle Noble, Rebecca Singer.

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