Before The Greatest Showman, There was Barnum!
Facetime Theatre in Phoenixville invites us all to run off and join the circus this March even if it’s only for a few hours with their fully immersive production of BARNUM. With a book by Mark Bramble (42nd Street), music by Cy Coleman (City of Angels, The Will Rogers Follies) and lyrics by Michael Stewart (Hello, Dolly!), Barnum tells the life story of P.T. Barnum from humble beginnings in Connecticut to master impresario and owner of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Never seeing the show before and only knowing a song or two, I was anxious to see something new to me. Personally invited into the black box theatre (or should I say big top) along with my guest by Ringmaster (Vincent Tavani), we were instantly immersed into the world of an old-time circus. Complete with the smell of fresh popcorn, the sight of several cast members peddling concessions and performing tricks, we were in awe of the atmosphere that this production team created. I always appreciate when the designers take the time to make the performance more than just a show, but an experience.
The set designer (Heidy Swartz) and directors (Paul & Michael Campbell-Trimbur) deserve a big round of applause for their attention to detail. Colorful bunting from floor to ceiling over the crowd creating a circus tent illusion, period chairs for each audience member elevated in a grandstand setting and the use of nailed together wooden pallets with felt banners and period sideshow posters enthusiastically sets the stage for this older, not often performed musical.
In traditional circus fashion, the musical starts with the Ringmaster (Vincent Tavani) setting the stage for what we are about to see. Mr. Taviani’s booming voice, charismatic stage presence and comedic timing (especially during a technical mishap-nice save) were especially enjoyable. I hope to see more of him onstage soon. We are then quickly formally introduced to the rest of the players all dressed in period circus costumes and finally the showman himself, Phineas Taylor Barnum, portrayed by David Schwartz. Mr. Schwartz’ strong vocal performance is to be commended but I found myself at times, struggling with connecting with the emotional rise and fall of his character. Mr. Schwartz is joined onstage by Cara Nardone appearing as Charity Barnum. Ms. Nardone did a fine job in this role. However, I had trouble recognizing the chemistry between the characters.
Barnum was known for discovering talent and Facetime did just that too, particularly in their supporting side-show characters. Playing 160-year-old Joice Heth is Alondra Santos-Castillo, one of my personal favorites. Her strong belt voice, giant smile, and spunk made me thoroughly enjoy her stand out song, “Thank God, I’m Old.” Another one of Barnum’s well-known acts, Tom Thumb, was taken on by Alek Wasserman and his melodic vocals. He did justice to the number “Bigger isn’t Better”, which involved some clever set pieces including a giant rocking chair and oversized elephant pieces brought to life by actor escorts to emphasize the smallness of Barnum’s 25-inch man. Of particular mention is Michelle English, who excellently takes on the role of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. Ms. English’s beautiful operatic voice and comedic bits make her sparkle as much as her gown. Michele Kilmer as The Blues Singer performed her number “Black and White” with pizazz and ease and entertained the crowd with her strong trumpet skills.
Rounding out the rest of the cast is a troupe of colorfully-clad circus performers that include Hannah Westfall, Sarah Holderith, Laura Jenkins, Vanessa Rodriguez Mclean, Rachel Nolen and Joseph Cosentino. While the troupe was entertaining with their big smiles and facial expressions, I found myself wanting more choreography for them as I could see they were capable of more. I noticed there was no choreographer listed in the program.
Although overpowering at times (and this could have been a mic issue as well), the 3-piece band did a nice job with the score. Hopefully, this sound issue will work itself out as their run continues.
Kudos to Facetime for taking on this vintage musical. On this dreary, cold March night and after a long week, it was nice to escape to the colorful world of the circus!
BARNUM runs March 1, 2, 8, & 9 at 7:30pm and March 10 at 2:00pm at Facetime Theatre inside the Franklin Commons, 400 Franklin Avenue, Suite 109, Phoenixville, PA. There is free parking in the large lot on Franklin Avenue. The theatre can be found through the main doors and down the hall on the left. Tickets are $20 for general seating and $15 for kids 12 and under and seniors and can be bought on Showtix4U.com. If you have any questions concerning the show or tickets, please email BoxOffice.Facetime@gmail.com.