Thoughts on Barnum – The Circus Musical

What: Barnum – The Circus Musical
Where: Comedy Theatre, Melbourne

Performances run until June, 2019
For more information, please visit

Capitalising on the success of the 2017 smash-hit film starring Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman; Barnum – the Circus Musical comes to town at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre, playing until June 2nd, 2019.

Whereas the film celebrates the triumphs loosely basely on the fictional life of P.T. Barnum, the musical delves deeper into his intriguing real-life history and shyster qualities. Based on the 1980 book by Mark Bramble, with lyrics by Michael Stewart and music by Cy Coleman; the Musical covers Barnum’s life from 1835 through 1880. Beginning with transforming an ordinary, educational museum into a circus filled with curiosity and wonderment, to his later political career, as well as his relationships with oddity employees, wife Charity and songstress, Jenny Lind.

Like Barnum himself, the musical plays with contrasting elements. However, the story plays second fiddle to its circus elements. Sometimes you’re so over-stimulated, unsure of where to look, by the crowded stage that the music falls by the wayside. When done right though, the songs are complemented perfectly by its humour, colour and magic – especially in Come Follow the Band and my personal favourite, One Brick at a Time.

Mixing improvisation, audience interaction, dance, humour, singing and an abundance of dialogue-heavy acting; charismatic Barnum is the role that Todd McKenney was born to play! McKenney too gets to experiment with sleight of hand tricks, walking the tightrope (as an impressive but unnecessary gimmick) and donning the stilts (for all of a bitterly disappointing two-seconds).

Rachael Beck (as Barnum’s stern wife) and Suzie Mathers (as the Swedish Nightingale) are excellent additions, but their characters are under-utilised with little stage time. Joshua Reckless makes a strong debut as Tom Thumb also.

Kirby Burgess, as the Ringmaster and other various roles, is Barnum’s greatest asset and easily, the standout. Playing roles traditionally played by a male actor, she not only displays impressive accents and character work, but excels in athleticism and comedic timing.

Equally strong are the cleverly-designed scene transitions by director Tyran Parke and choreographer, Kelly Ayker. Heightened by a practical set design and façade, with beautifully, intricate costumes by Dann Barber.

Just as the acrobatics soar; the character development falls short. Opening and closing with There is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute, shows a lack of growth or arc from protagonist Barnum. And although the music is often lovely, there are no real anthemic masterpieces that’ll remain with you long after you leave the theatre. This, of course, is not a fault of the production itself, and why shows like these are often difficult to review because you’re bound by the original source material and real-life history.

Although the musical is family-friendly, based on the children who sat behind me who were talking and rustling chip packets during those non-circus dead spots, the show is not entertaining enough to hold their focus and attention for 2.5 hours.

I lean towards an upbeat show with a heightened sense of reality, and those elements are present and strong, but often too far in-between. I would have liked more music and dance, but that’s because I like more traditionally-structured musicals, which this show is not. Though the two never quite marry, if you’re looking for something that blends musical elements with circus theatrics, then Barnum will certainly impress.

There’s a lot to like about this production. After all, everyone loves the circus.

Photo by Jim Lee

Performances run until June, 2019
For more information, please visit

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