It's rare to step into a theater and feel so completely embraced by a show's mood before it has even started, but I shouldn't have been surprised. The popcorn, the string of lights, the calliope, the canvas circus tarps enclosing the stage — all of it puts you in the world of "Barnum," the 1980 Broadway musical about P.T. Barnum, the master 19th century huckster and circus impresario.
But even aside from those trappings, a palpable, neighborly vibe was in the air last weekend, and it went a long way toward explaining what Quest Theatre Ensemble is going after. Namely, a loose intimacy and casual bonhomie between audience and performer, and I found it hugely effective.
Dismissing financial barriers to entry, the company charges nothing for tickets (though they do accept donations). It's no accident they're calling this production "The People's Barnum."
A circus-musical mash-up that demands acrobatic and other such skills from its cast, the show spans Barnum's bizarre career from the 1830s through the 1880s. A lover of oddities and the power of the well-made entertainment con, he collected various acts — Tom Thumb being perhaps the most famous — and battled his way through show biz hardships, mostly under the stabilizing influence of his wife. It's a purely American story of capitalistic impulse fueled by the proverbial sucker born every minute with a terrific score from Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart that includes the wonderfully bluesy, clipped-wings lament of "Black and White" and the can-you-top-this mayhem of "Join the Circus."
Under the direction of Andrew Park, the production jams an awful lot onto its tiny stage. Stylistically it feels a bit too cobbled together at points, but again that's part of Quest's deal. It's not trying to be slick. This is a low-budget, if fully inhabited, affair.
And if Jason Bowen's Barnum lacks in-your-face charisma or that crucial, desperate undercurrent that surely existed within a man so willing to lie every moment of his life (even if it was all in good fun), it's a good-natured performance that captures Barnum's infectious enthusiasm all the same, and it is nicely complemented by David Hathway's impish ringmaster, who even breaks out a bona fide back flip.
Through March 18 at The Blue Theatre, 1609 W. Gregory St. Free (donations accepted); 312-458-0895 or questensemble.org.
"The $25,000 Pyramid"
Throwing some improv juice into a game show format sounds intriguing — and also, redundant. What game show isn't improvised to some extent? At any rate, a favorite TV staple of mine from the 1970s and '80s is being revived at the Playground Theater with an emphasis on improv from the "contestants," i.e., the performers from the improv group known as Mort. "This is what happens when you go from network TV to a theater off Belmont (Avenue)," we were informed somewhat at the outset. That's a sheepish premise I can get behind.
A word-guessing game, the various incarnations of "Pyramid," worked over the years primarily for the way the show exposed varying levels of articulateness among celebrities, some of whom were just horrible at the game. Never underestimate the power of schadenfreude.
Alas, the concept here is half-baked: The central joke, if one even exists, appears to be a moving target, and that results in sketchily drawn characters and stalled exchanges.
That sound I kept hearing was improv hitting a brick wall as two woefully thick-headed teams competed against one another (Harry Potter and Rip Taylor were the "celebs" last weekend). The whole thing felt like a frustrated exercise. As a group, the members of Mort failed to play the game straight (which might have been the truly subversive choice) or invent a workable comedic alternative.
Saturday and March 10 at the Playground Theater, 3209 N. Halsted St. $10 at the-playground.com (show is listed under the group's name, Mort).