This month, a visit to Clearwater’s Francis Wilson Playhouse will include an elephant, a miniature man and a Swedish Nightingale as the theater presents “Barnum” through Sunday, Sept. 18. Show times through Saturday, 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.
The musical “Barnum” showcases the life of circus showman entrepreneur Phineas Taylor Barnum, fondly remembered for his enchanting hoaxes and for establishing the big top, three ring extravaganza that would become the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
At a matinee performance Sunday, the show started before the players even took the stage. Pre-show amusements were provided by Morton Plant Mease Health Care’s Caring Clowns, volunteers trained to provide humor therapy for hospital patients.
The lobby has been transformed, decorated with circus posters and handbills. A sideshow barker described a series of images along the walls which included some of Barnum’s most recognizable “special people,” such as the famous Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng. A fortune teller offered readings, adding to the carnival-like backdrop.
“Barnum,” with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart and book by Mark Bramble, originally opened at the St. James Theatre in 1980 and ran for 854 performances. Jason Fortner directed and choreographed “Barnum” for Francis
Wilson, with music direction by Jason Tucker. Fortner has directed eight musicals for FWP including the 2004-2005 production of “La Cage aux Folles.” Tucker has been involved in theater for more than 25 years and has collaborated with Fortner in the past, including “La Cage.”
Like the life and world the musical relates, “Barnum” is fast-paced and animated, providing brisk and breezy onstage antics including juggling, acrobatics and comic clowning. Barnum, played by Fortner, introduces the production with the pizzazz of a seasoned promoter, defining the term “humbug” and declaring the construction of white lies and imaginative exaggerations his singular gift.
Fortner, who has been working with FWP since 1974, possesses ample charisma to make his portrayal of Barnum feel authentic to the audience. From the show-opening “There Is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute” to the poignant “Out There,” he delivers a solid performance as the centerpiece of the show.
It is Micki Schumacher, however, playing Barnum’s wife Chairy, who emerges as the show’s stand-out player. All eyes are drawn to her whenever she appears on stage, particularly during the songs “The Colors of My Life” and “I Like Your Style.” Schumacher’s portrayal of Chairy illuminates the many facets of this character, from her authoritarian sensibleness to her compassionate tolerance of her husband’s far-fetched schemes and diversions.
Another highlight is FWP newcomer Scott Hamilton playing Tom Thumb. With past credits including “Oklahoma” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” both with Eight O’Clock Theatre, Hamilton conjures up a fine performance delivering “Bigger Isn’t Better” atop an oversized chair concocted by imaginative set designers.
The musical is never better than when the whole ensemble comes together, electrifying the stage and reminding the audience of the scope of the production. Particularly in the show-stopping “One Brick at a Time” and in the finale, the company performs together like clockwork creating scenes that transcend the playhouse and transport the audience to another age, when Barnum’s dreams made magic underneath the big top.