Saturday, August 25, 2018



Book by Mark Bramble. Lyrics by Michael Stewart. Music by Cy Coleman. Directed by Anita Davenport. Musical direction by Rhys Madigan. Choreography by Jodi Hammond. Designed by Ian Croker and Steve Galinec. Costumes by Chelsea de Rooy. Canberra Philharmonic Society. Erindale Theatre. August 23 – September 8 2018.

 Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Philo’s Barnum bursts onto the Erindale stage in a cascade of colour and movement, music and song, and magical entertainment. Canberra’s veteran musical society has pulled another rabbit out of its hat. Simply set within Ian Croker and Steve Galinec’s  colourful circus setting, the open stage is freed up for a parade of circus acts, intimate vignettes and jubilant ensemble numbers, such as Come Follow the Band.  Where to look as a unicyclist sweeps across the stage, aerialists float on high, jugglers spin their clubs, the strongman flexes his muscles, clowns pedal their strange contraption, and the magnificently metal elephant ambles onto the scene. Philo has pulled out all stops to stun the audience with spectacle and skill in the spirit of Victorian entrepreneur and dreamer, P.T.Barnum. Anita Davenport’s direction keeps the stage alive with action and fun, while Jodi Hammond’s choreography showcases the skill of the trained dancer with simple but effective choreography for the untrained members of the show’s exuberant ensemble.
Bringing Mark Bramble’s book, Michael Stewart’s lyrics and Cy Coleman’s musical about the enigmatic showman, Phineas Taylor Barnum to the stage is no easy feat. It is difficult enough for a professional company, let alone an amateur company of enthusiastic and talented performers and creatives. That Philo has embraced the task with such vigour, joy and inventiveness is to the credit of the entire company, and their ingenuity in demonstrating the talents of the company within the limits of the company’s resources. Nothing is compromised to bring a first rate entertainment to an appreciative audience, which once more attests to the high standards of Philo’s productions in recent years.
The cast do the best they can with a flawed book. Bramble sketchily outlines the episodes in Barnum’s life from his inspired desire to create a circus of special people through the trials and tribulations of his career and private life to the meeting with Bailey (Paul Sweeney), prior to the creation of the great Barnum and Bailey partnership.  Greg Sollis is more dreamer than entrepreneur with a flair for humbug. It is an engaging and appealing performance that capture’s Barnum’s vulnerability  and reliance on his wife’s practical and reassuring support. Julia Walker shines with star quality as Barnum’s wife, Charity. She epitomizes the Victorian steadfastness, practicality and loyal devotion with an air of calm command. Her singing exudes a beautifully sustained authority and gentle tenderness. In her debut Canberra performance, Walker offers great promise in roles to come.
Philo has gathered together an excellent principal cast including Meaghan Stewart as a comically delightful one hundred and sixty year old Joice Heth, Mark Zatschler’s bright and bold General Tom Thumb, Paul Sweeney’s physically striking Strongman and Dickensian circus manager, Bailey. Kate Tricks offers a music hall cameo as the Blues Singer of Black and White, supported by the ensemble in Chelsea de Rooy’s cleanly coordinated costuming. Demi Smith hits the high notes as the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, whose beautiful operatic trill serves as a Siren of seduction for the infatuated Barnum. Ringmaster, Jano Simko cuts a dashing figure as the unicycling juggler, although his Ringmaster lacks the presence and persuasion of a Ringmaster, a role that is more appropriately assumed by the persuasive Barnum.
There are fine performances from the ensemble, who have enthusiastically embraced the spirit of the circus, and entertained an audience in the foyer and the theatre before the show and during the interval. It is a part of the immersive magical charm of this production. Musical director Madigan and his orchestra keep the cast in fine voice with rousing renditions of Cy Coleman’s music, and Michael Stewart’s lyrics. Whatever the failings of the actual musical, Philo has revived a show with spirit and flair to keep any sucker born any minute entertained and uplifted by the spirit of a dreamer who saw everyone as special. That is the special gift of Philo’s production of Barnum.