Review: ‘Barnum’ at The Heritage Players

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Hey kids, let’s go see a show! “Come Follow The Band” with The Heritage Players at Thomas Rice Auditorium in Catonsville to see Barnum, the story of a man and his life-long love affair with illusion and malarkey.

James Doggett (left) as Bailey and Matt Wetzel (right) as Barnum. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography
James Doggett (left) as Bailey and Matt Wetzel (right) as Barnum. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

Barnum, book by Mark Bramble, lyrics by Michael Stewart, and music by Cy Coleman made its debut on April 30, 1980, at St. James Theatre in New York City. Michael Stewart’s best-known works are from the ‘60s- Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival!, Hello, Dolly!, George M!– and despite a series of forgettable shows in the ‘70s, earned nominations for Tony Awards in two different shows in 1980, 42nd Street (also with Mark Bramble) and this one, Barnum.

I have reason to be at least tangentially grateful for the show Barnum: an acquaintance of mine learned a skill for a mid-80s production of it, which he taught to me, and we subsequently performed together for a number of years. Which is not to say that I am a big fan of the show itself. It seems ill-conceived, potentially clunky, with several requirements that are either difficult to manifest or fail to move the plot or both. Aside from finding some basic book problems, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?

From the perspective of an audience member, it’s quite clear from the beginning what’s going on and how the show works. From then on, it’s left to us to marvel, rejoice or shake our heads at the inflated antics of the title character, as at its heart, Barnum is a biography.

Some of the musical numbers are catchy, a few outstanding; several are irrelevant to the plot. All of the numbers are undertaken with utmost earnestness by an enthusiastic cast. Music Director Mandee Ferrier Roberts gets significant sound from the group, and most of the songs, relevant and otherwise, sound lovely.

As P.T. Barnum, the perennially engaging Matthew Wetzel is wonderful. He’s a full helping of charming who, with some snake-oil on the side, can share the spotlight as well as carry the show and has admirably clear and precise vocals for each of his many numbers. Some include dancing or other physical exertions, yet Wetzel never sounds out of breath, strained or off-key. His timing is impeccable and his delivery snappy.

Wetzel’s co-star, Rachel Weir, playing Charity, is splendidly understated and squeezes a wealth of nuance from what seems a stiffly-written character with rigorous confines. The relationship between Charity and Barnum is believable and authentic. Director Jim Gross handles some intimate personal interactions with finesse and sensitivity.

Renata Hammond as Joice Heth. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography
Renata Hammond as Joice Heth. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

Kelly Rardon as songstress Jenny Lind is operatic in look and sound, (unlike in- ahem- a particular recent movie), for her solos “Love Makes Such Fools Of Us All” (once in each act) and gowned resplendently in white, as was her signature. Props to the costumers Lynn Kellner and Amy Bell for that detail. Renata Hammond rocks out as Joice Heth in “Thank God I’m Old” and later as Blues Singer in the ensemble and I could listen to her all day long. If she’s ever in Ain’t Misbehavin,’ I hope someone will tell me so I can go.

Gregory May, billed in the programme as Circus Consultant, is likely responsible for every ‘theatrical’ prop and specialty skill effect in the show. Unfortunately, it seems as if the focus was put on inserting skills that the greatest number of performers could easily do, rather than legitimately showcasing a couple of gifted individuals. Some of these skills are used to good effect, particularly in “The Colors Of My Life, Part 2,” but some of these theatricalities are surrounded by uninspired staging, thereby overshadowing the rest of the sequence. My favorite number, in fact, used no specialty skill beyond simple costuming: I found “Black And White” a most effective piece and I personally wished the show contained more of that as an overall aesthetic.

Parking is free, but you’ll want to bring dollar bills for intermission snacks- there are no prices, but experience suggests at least one dollar per snack or beverage. There are plenty of options, including a samovar full of hot coffee.

Spring Grove, still functioning as a psychiatric hospital, hosts The Heritage Players in the Thomas Rice Auditorium. The philanthropic Heritage Players, going four decades now, regularly donate portions of their proceeds to groups or organizations agreed upon by the cast of each production, along with a donation to Spring Grove and a special Patient Performance for the residence of the facility. This alone makes their productions worth seeing.

Come out, “Join The Circus” and enjoy an immersive evening of all-American entertainment with the satisfaction of contributing to the Public Good. That’s not something you’ll get going to the movies at the mall.

Run Time: two hours, with one 15 minute Intermission.

Barnum plays through November 11, 2018, by the Heritage Players at the Thomas Rice Auditorium on the campus of Spring Grove Hospital in Catonsville, Maryland. For tickets, go online.

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