KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 16, 1997
MUSIC , up: “Join the Circus”
It may not be ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ but “Barnum” kinda makes you feel like you’ve been to the circus. It’s bright and brash, and there are sometimes 20 things going on at once.
It’s a concept musical, of sorts, and a biography of sorts. The focus is Phineas Taylor Barnum, the flamboyant impresario who called himself ‘The Prince of Humbug.’ The 1980 Tony-nominated show doesn’t spend too much time on characterization or chronological detail. Instead, it offers highlights of the showman’s ingenious career in the business of ‘schemes and dreams,’ from 1835 to 1880, each event framed as a circus act. Cute idea that doesn’t always work, with some tuneful tunes by Cy Coleman and some very clever lyrics by Michael Stewart. The book is too precious at times, but the concept is at its best when P.T. is forced into a death-defying, face-to-face confrontation with the ‘most ferocious of all beasts’ — his wife. Actually, that wife, Charity Barnum, as played by Liz Swensen, is the fulcrum of the piece. She does the most credible acting and the most accomplished singing.
As the self-proclaimed miracle-maker and flimflam man, Barnum, Eric Anderson is charming but not charismatic; his voice is pleasant but not show-stopping. This is unfortunate, as is the casting of John Nettles as the Ringmaster who introduces each big-top act; Nettles moves wonderfully, but he hasn’t got the vocal apparatus for the role’s singing or announcing duties.
The show also demands a backup bevy of tumblers, jugglers, acrobats and clowns. Director/choreographer Ray Limon has a whirlwind of inventively dizzying activity going on, but he doesn’t really have the talent to support it. The cast of 39 may not be pros, but they’re dressed like ‘em; the three-woman team of costume coordinators has really gone to town — or, more aptly, to the circus. The production, like its subject, is terrifically showy and colorful. And it’s really fun. There are face-painters and clowns scattered throughout the Amphitheatre in Vista, and the mood is extremely youthful and festive. You just can’t beat the setting at Moonlight; out under the stars, picnic in hand. It’s a glorious way to spend a summer evening with family or friends. — and you sure don’t have to sucker them into it.
MUSIC, under and out: “Overture Chase”
A zany, frenetic circus of another sort is on the other end of the county — at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. The goofball premise of “Triple Espresso” sounds like it would be too silly for words. And it is. But that somehow makes it all the more uproarious. It’s Hugh Butternut Night at the Triple Espresso, San Diego’s most popular coffeehouse. Actually, this theatrical cafe originally opened in Minneapolis, where the show premiered in 1996. This is its original cast, here making a 20th reunion comeback as the pitiful, failure of a musical-comedy trio: Maxwell, Butternut and Bean.
The script and the jokes are incredibly lame, but the cast is amazingly adept. Michael Pearce Donley is the ever-grinning singer, pianist and lounge lizard, Bill Arnold is the sour-pussed magician and Bob Stromberg is the facial-ticked mime — and the flat-out best gorilla you’re likely to see this side of a zoo cage.
They get the audience involved, they get under your skin, they can’t help but make you laugh. Especially at their tasteless pseudo-African choreography for Cable Zaire Prime Time, and their hilarious, tear-inducing pseudo-naked handkerchief dance on The Mike Douglas Show. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like vaudeville or slapstick or magic or mime. This summer ava-jolt is tasty, frothy and laughinated.
MUSIC, under and out: more from “Overture Chase”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.