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'Barnum' tells showman's life in circus vignettes


Ladies and gentlemen, if you would give your undivided attention to the center ring, please.

Presenting Mr. P. T. Barnum, showman extraordinarie, dreamer, schemer, patriot, newspaper editor and politician, in "Barnum," the play.

The story of one of America's most colorful characters arrives on stage Thursday when Theatre on the Hill opens for its 13th season on the main stage of Alumni Hall on the Western Maryland College campus.

"He was the ultimate showman, he wrote the book on showmanship," said Ray Ficca, who plays Barnum. "He was to the circus what Houdini was to magic."

"Barnum," written by Cy Colman, with music by Mark Bramble, tells Barnum's life in circus vignettes. The 26-member cast performs juggling, high-wire, trapeze, contortionist, magic and fire-eating acts.

"We have the biggest elephant ever, 14 feet high; the littlest man, Tom Thumb; and Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale,' " said producer Ira Domser. "They were all Barnum's attractions." To create a real circus ring for "Barnum," the main stage has been extended and a circular front added. For tips on the high wire act, Mr. Domser and Mr. Ficca visited the Kelly Miller Circus earlier this month in Westminster.

OK, so the elephant isn't real, but Mr. Ficca does do a high wire act, about 15 feet above the stage floor.

"Barnum became fascinated by Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, and he decided to have an affair with her," Mr. Domser said. "The tightrope walk represents his struggle between . . . two women, who are standing at each end of the tightrope."

Barnum was born in 1818 and died in 1891. During that time he established and was editor of his own newspaper; promoted what he called "humbug," such as a 160-year-old woman who claimed to be George Washington's nurse; opened Barnum's American Museum; was elected mayor of Bridgeport, Conn.; and started the P. T. Barnum Circus.

"Some would say he was an exhibitionist," Mr. Ficca said. "I'd say he was a dreamer and patriot who represents things we've lost since his time -- imagination, a sense of wonder, even our dreams."

It was Barnum who coined the phrase "there's a sucker born every minute." And he proved it in many of his acts, some of which were later found to be downright fraudulent, such as Washington's nurse, who was found to be less than 80 years old when she died. "He could convince people they were seeing something that wasn't there," Mr. Ficca said. "But he gets fooled as much as he fools others. His was a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches life."

When Barnum's wife asks him why he doesn't give up his promotions for a respectable job, he tells her "because I want to excite people, give them a glimpse of a miracle."

The show will include a live orchestra, chorus and refreshments.

"It wouldn't be much of a circus if you couldn't eat popcorn," Mr. Domser said with a laugh.

"Barnum" will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 1, 6-8 and 13-15. Tickets are $17 for adults, $13 for seniors and $9 for children. Information: box office, 857-2448.

A benefit performance for the YMCA will be given at 8 p.m. July 28. Tickets are $10 each, with a second ticket half price. Tickets may be purchased through the YMCA at 848-3660, or the box office.

The Community Foundation of Carroll County will have an outdoor circus party at 6:30 p.m. and benefit performance at 8 p.m. July 30. Tickets are $10, $20 and $40, available from the foundation at 857-7336.

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