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LA Theater Review


"There's a sucker born every minute," according to Michael Stewart's song lyrics and the epigram attributed to 19th century circus impresario P.T. Barnum. Suckers for shows emphasizing style over substance should have a field day watching this energetic confection unfold. A rare revival of a Tony-winning 1980 musical about the legendary showman Barnum, it's enlivened by one of Cy Coleman's finest scores and an intoxicating circus atmosphere, brought to life with panache by director Josh Prince, who pulls off theatrical magic in scaling down a gargantuan Broadway tuner for an intimate stage.

Barnum demonstrates the strong influence of two musicals from the 1970s: its circus motif works in a way similar to Chicago's vaudeville-driven storytelling style, while also recalling Pippin's carnival high jinks. Yet the property boasts unique stylistic flourishes of its own. The cornucopia of dazzling surprises includes juggling acts, unicycle-riding, a simulated high-wire feat, and ingenious visual tricks, such as creating the image of a 25-inch-tall man. About all that's missing is a lion tamer with a live beast. Prince's exuberant choreography seals the deal, keeping the action flowing in a swirl of dazzling movement that's as colorful as Craig Siebels' amazing circus set, Shon LeBlanc's attractive costumes, and Luke Moyer's exciting lighting effects. Music director A. J. Robb and his four musicians also yield boffo results.

Amid the spectacle, there are fleeting depictions of human beings. Mark Bramble's book is a sketchy biographical outline, summarizing Barnum's squabbles with his wife (an engaging Yvette Lawrence) over his pie-in-the sky career dreams; his extramarital dalliance with a Swedish singer (golden-voiced Emily Kosloski); and the steps leading up to his partnership with James A. Bailey (played by the charismatic Robert Mammana, who masters multiple roles, including the dashing Ringmaster). James J. Mellon is likeable and dexterous in the demanding title role. Standouts in the supporting ensemble are the buoyant Regina Le Vert-particularly in her hilarious turn as a 160-year-old woman-and Adam Simmons, a genuine charmer as the pint-sized Tom Thumb. Though not the greatest show on Earth, this is an impressive feat of razzle-dazzle showmanship.

Presented by Open at the Top Productions at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Feb. 10-Mar. 26. (818) 508-7101, ext. 5.

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