Review: ‘Barnum’ at Prince William Little Theatre

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By Leandra Lynn

Step right up! Feast your eyes on PWLT’s current production, Barnum! The fun started even before I walked into the Hylton Performing Arts Center, with clowns waving at me from the inside of the lobby, beckoning me to come in. In the lobby, Leslie Barnett (Ensemble Member) deftly gave me a well-practiced history lesson of P.T. Barnum’s life while sharing photos of some of the real-life members of Barnum’s original act, while a few of the younger ensemble members roamed about dressed like circus animals on the loose. Other ensemble members and people in the clown troupe also entertained audience members before they journeyed into the theater itself.

The cast of Barnum, presented by Prince William Little Theatre. Photo by David Harback/Harback Photography.
The cast of Barnum, presented by Prince William Little Theatre. Photo by David Harback/Harback Photography.

I made my way to my seat and enjoyed several minutes of semi-scripted ensemble interactions. Hilarious clown hijinks (the clown technical advisor, Pat Jannell, did an excellent job), a bearded lady and lots of juggling were some of the highlights of a visually rich preshow. Hair and makeup by Caroline Scarborough were amazing and really added depth to the overall experience. The set (designed by Nick Mastrangelo) was well done while still being as minimalistic as possible, giving more room to the actors to play. While I very much enjoyed being able to watch the pit orchestra stationed right on stage, a mildly unfortunate side effect was that there were times that the music overpowered the singing. The orchestra (conducted by Jackie Owen) was one of the best that I have heard at a community theatre level and they successfully blended canned music with live music throughout the show.

The show itself, while not my personal favorite (the script reads a little old-fashioned and makes for a few cringe-worthy moments), was excellently cast by director Chuck DeLong. The choreography by Christine Mastrangelo and Caroline Scarborough was entertaining and seemed to utilize every ensemble member’s different ability levels. The large dance number accompanying “Join the Circus” was absolutely dazzling.

Matthew Scarborough and Brianna Williamson were delightful as Phineas Taylor Barnum and his wife, Chairy. Scarborough did a marvelous job making a (frankly detestable) real-life figure into a very endearing and compelling character, while Williamson showed off her acting chops playing a very sensible and warmhearted woman in love with a dreamer. Their singing separately was very good, but their complementary voices intertwined beautifully in multiple duets.

While the entire ensemble was fun to watch, AnuRa Harrison (Joice Heth/Blues Singer/Ensemble/Clown) really stole the show. My attention was invariably on Harrison every time she was on stage (which was most of the show). Other really stand-out performances came from Roan McLean (Jenny Lind) and Aaron Talley (Ringmaster/James A. Bailey). McLean’s accent (with the help of dialect coach Ivy Elizabeth Cole) played out well through both her lines and her singing numbers and did not prevent her from giving some great emotional moments. Talley played Bailey with a big fake mustache and an even bigger smile on his face, both of which felt right at home for his Ringmaster persona.

Barnum is absolutely worth the price of admission, and “that’s no humbug!”

Running Time: About 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Barnum, presented by Prince William Little Theatre, plays through July 29, 2018, in the Gregory Family Theater at George Mason University’s Hylton Center for the Performing Arts, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, VA. For tickets, purchase online.