🎭 Humbug, I Say | “Barnum” @ MTG

Barnum (MTG)MTG UserpicThere’s one major problem with seeing shows on Sunday evening: When to do the writeup? That’s made even worse when you are trying to walk 10K steps a day, have a full-time job, have evening meetings, and it is the first week of the new television season. Please accept that as my excuse for why this writeup of the musical Barnum, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, and book by Mark Bramble, is so late. We saw the show last Sunday night (its only performance); and I haven’t had time to write it up until now.

Barnum is the show that really introduced me to Cy Coleman’s music. When I got the cast album, I also picked up an album of the Cy Coleman trio doing songs from that show, and almost wore it out. I first saw the show in January 1982 at the Pantages Theatre with most of the original cast: Jim Dale, Glenn Close, Catherine Gaines, Ray Roderic, Terri White, Terrence V. Mann, and others. In the recent past, I saw the show back in 2006 at the NoHo Arts Center with James Mellon and Janet Fontaine.

This time, I was seeing Barnum as the first show of our subscription to Musical Theatre Guild (FB), a local company that specializes in doing staged readings of rarely done “gems”. The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) season was a bust in terms of musicals we wanted, and MTG had moved to Sunday night and was doing three shows we hadn’t seen: The Goodbye Girl, It Shoulda Been Youand Kismet — so we subscribed and Barnum was part of the deal. “Staged reading” means you get the entire libretto and book. However, there are no formal sets; the actors (by AEA rules) have their scripts in hand, there is truly limited rehearsal (25 hours); and any ensemble is minimal. It is a great way to “see” a show and imagine what it could be, but not have the expense of a full production. However, as there is only one performance, there are likely to be all sorts of technical problems and rough edges.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it tells the story of P.T. Barnum, from his first “humbug” with Joyce Heth (after he met his wife Charity Barnum) until the creation of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. It has a very Dixie-land score, and features rope tricks, juggling, tightrope walking, marching bands, the world’s smallest man, the world’s oldest woman, the world’s biggest elephant, magic tricks, and more… in this case, with a cast of 9.

So I’ve seen Barnum in the big, and I’ve seen Barnum in the small. How did this production do? The answer is: reasonably well. Overall, the performances were good, and the character performers were extremely creative in presenting Big Top acts on a teeny-tiny budget. Some of the voices were remarkable. The show, however, was marred by sound problems (especially on some of my favorite songs), some of the actors lost their places in the scripts, and the lead just couldn’t keep up with some of the strong patter songs (and I believe dropped some lyrics, and perhaps even cut an entire reprise of the verse).

Credit goes to the director, Alan Bailey (FB), and the choreographer, Cheryl Baxter (FB), for the creative way they brought the show to life with their limited budget and limited rehearsal time. Some of the creative decisions such as how they did the tightrope, the acrobats, the execution of the Tom Thumb and Jumbo sequences, and the implementation of the circus acts were great. Given the limited rehearsal, the movement was in general quite good and conveyed a sense of what the show could be with more time and rehearsal. The incorporation during one sequence of a sign indicating the AEA required them to hold scripts at all times was a hoot.

In the lead position was Kirby Ward (FB) as PT Barnum. Ward had a good voice, and captured the character and the playfulness of Barnum well. Where he had problems was keeping up with the script: there were one or two places where he seemingly lost his place. A greater problem for me was that, in the “Museum Song” (a song I have memorized), he seemed to misplace a line, and skip the fastest reprise. He had some similar problems in “Join the Circus”, IIRC. I understand the limited rehearsal time and being “on book”, but …

Working with him as Charity Barnum was Tracy Lore, who we’ve seen in numerous productions at Cabrillo/5-Star and appears to be an MTG regular. Lore’s Charity had a lovely voice, and she did a great job of bringing the character to life and playing off of Ward’s Barnum. A flawless performance.

As we move to the remainder of the cast (who all handled multiple roles), there are a few I would like to particularly highlight. Regina LeVert (⭐FB, FB) Joyce Heth / Blues Singer / Ensemble had a remarkable voice and gave a great performance, but was hindered by a malfunctioning microphone that hurt her powerful vocals. What made matters worse is that they didn’t fix the problem after the first failure, but let it fail again in her second song in the second act. The stage manager had the presence to hand her a mic near the end of her first song; they could have done that at the first hint of trouble in the second. Another strong singer was Kelley Dorney (FBJenny Lind / Ensemble. For Lind, Dorney has to capture an operatic soprano voice, and she just nailed it with both beauty and grace. The third performance I would like to highlight is Matthew Patrick Davis (FBChester Lyman / Tom Thumb / Wilton / Ensemble.  Davis brought a strong voice to his performance in “Bigger Isn’t Better”, but more importantly brought loads of humor to Tom Thumb, as the tallest ensemble member recruited to play the world’s smallest man. He made it work, and then he reappeared at the end on stilts! Rounding out the ensemble were: Jasmine Ejan (⭐FB, FB) Mrs Stratton / Ensemble; Glenn Shiroma (FB) Ringmaster / James Bailey / Ensemble; Matt Braver (FB) Amos Scudder / Goldschmidt / Morrissey / Ensemble; and Jeffrey Scott Parsons (FB) Sherwood Stratton / Concertmaster / Templeton / Ensemble.

Also “performing” on stage were two ASL Interpreters from Pierce College, Angelina Giudice (FB) and Heaven Ringle (FB). I cannot attest to the quality of their signing, or whether they were able to keep up with the show and the songs, but they were fun to watch and had their own interplay during the show.

Lastly, augmenting the performers during the Act II opening number “Come Follow the Band” was the Verdugo Hills High School Marching Band. They were a hit with the audience; they only way the reaction could have been better had been if they marched down the aisles.

Speaking of music: the on-stage band was under the musical direction of Jan Roper (FB), who was also tickling the ivories (and not the ivories of Jumbo). Rounding out the on-stage musicians were Chris Tedesco (FB) Trumpet; Dave Ryan Trombone; John Yoakum (FBWoodwinds; Steve Wilkinson Bass; and Alan Peck Drums / Percussion.  I did appreciate the red noses at the start.

Finally, turning to the production and creative side. There were no credits for scenic design, although there was a production coordinator (Barbara Carlton Heart), video technical assistance (Ernest McDaniel), and a video board operator (Megan Salisbury). There were no credits for sound or lighting, even though they really needed a sound person on site, given the mic problems. They did, however, have costumes by Jeffrey Schoenberg / AJS Costumes, which served to define the characters and provide a limited sense of who and when.  Rounding out the production team was Leesa Freed Production Stage Manager / Production Manager, Stacey Cortez Asst Stage Manager; and Debra Miller Asst Stage Manager.

Musical Theatre Guild (FB) productions are one performance only. Their next performance is The Goodbye Girl on November 10, 2019.

I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Saturday night brings Blue Man Group at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). We start getting really busy in October, starting with The Mystery of Irma Vep at Actors Co-op (FB) and Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville at Canyon Theatre Guild. The next weekend brings Anastasia – The Musical at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend brings us back to the Kavli for The Music Man at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), followed by In Trousers at the Lounge Theatre from Knot Free Productions. October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) and the MoTAS Poker Tournament.

Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at  Actors Co-op (FB), followed by Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica.. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB).  The third weekend is open, but may bring an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB). November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks

December is relatively open right now, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. I do have a hold for December 17 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild. I also have a hold for January 4 for What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, but I’m waiting for the presale to start to confirm that date.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

 

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