REVIEW by Gary Shipton: Barnum at Chichester Festival Theatre’s ‘Theatre in the Park’
He was the self-proclaimed greatest showman on earth.
So Phineas T Barnum might have accepted the standing ovation and overwhelming adulation at Chichester this week with a mere ‘so what’ shrug of the shoulders.
After all, making a show stopping impression was all in a day’s work for the 19th century pioneer of spectacular circus.
But this latest musical interpretation of his life and achievements is more than just another classy piece of humbug, as Barnum himself might have opined.
It is a triumph.
Every clap of the audience’s hand is not merely merited, but thoroughly deserved ten times more.
Let’s be honest. The music and lyrics by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart are not the most memorable. They aren’t a patch on Rodgers and Hammerstein at their peak.
Nor is this biog of the great Barnum himself any great shakes. It is full of the usual cliché, romance, and insincerity that underpins many significant historical figures.
But this revised version by Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble explodes with visual and even a little emotional magic.
It also possesses casting of titanic proportions.
Let’s face it. Barnum lives and dies on the strength of the performance of its lead actor. And Christopher Fitzgerald is simply amazing.
As he tripped across the tightrope wire at the conclusion of the first half, then unwound himself down a snaking ladder of a rope from the roof to the floor in the second, the audience were cheering him on.
That’s because he also had to combine the tricks of a circus performer with the singing voice of an angel and the charisma and stage presence of a Hollywood icon.
His supporting cast – not least Tamsin Carroll as his wife Chairy – add real dimension to a production whose theme is the importance of the colourful performance.
This show bursts with the life of a universe in its big bang moment of creation.
All this alone, would secure Barnum’s place in Chichester Festival Theatre’s memoir of success.
But, of course, what makes this production so important and adds immensely to its stature is that it isn’t staged in the theatre at all.
While the main house undergoes a 50th anniversary £22m facelift, Barnum moves the audience to a temporary £800,000 Theatre in the Park.
From the exterior this conveys all the sense of a modern circus Big Top.
Inside, it is an extraordinary recreation of the original CFT.
If you can still secure tickets for this moment in history, snap them up.
I suspect they will go quickly.
CFT’s artistic director Jonathan Church and executive director Alan Finch along with co-producer Mackintosh have made the next stage in this great theatre’s evolution not merely memorable but a moment of theatrical wonder.