'Barnum' a showy subject, but thin on comedy, drama

The Baltimore Sun

Yes, I know that Barnum, the Cy Coleman musical about to enter its second and final weekend of production by the Talent Machine Company at St. John's College in Annapolis, was a Tony winner that ran for 854 performances on Broadway in the early 1980s.

I also know that it can be a colorful show, chock-full of tumblers, clowns, trapeze artists and the like; and that characters such as Tom Thumb, soprano Jenny Lind and the Barnums themselves lend the proceedings a bit of a historical kick.

But what I was left with after watching Talent Machine's 14- to 18-year-olds in action at Key Auditorium on Sunday afternoon is that the musical is anything but "the greatest show on Earth." Indeed, it's a mighty slender vehicle for both comedy and drama once the circus folk and "humbug" acts for which Phineas Taylor Barnum was known leave the stage.

The story line, such as it is, introduces us to a young Barnum in 1835 and follows him through 1881, when he signs on with fellow showman James A. Bailey to create the circus that would make both their names immortal.

In between, we're introduced to Barnum's wife, Chairy, who would like a more stable, less show-bizzy mate but stands by her man even when he takes up with Jenny Lind, the world-famous "Swedish Nightingale" whose glamour is just the nourishment the relentless self-promoter craves.

"The Colors of My Life" and "Black and White," two of the catchier entries in Coleman's serviceable but uninspired score, set the philosophical limits for the decisions we make to set the priorities of our lives.

Where Talent Machine excels, as usual, is in the big colorful numbers that bring the full ensemble to the stage. "There's a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute," "One Brick at a Time" and the zippy "Join the Circus" show the cast to its best advantage. We're also treated to a nifty transformation of color and style when the set morphs out of "Black and White" mode to spring alive with color.

The cast's most accomplished singer is Kelsea Edgerly, whose lyric soprano voice comes across nicely in "The Colors of My Life," the show's best known melody. She's paired with Kory Kinney, who is earnest and amiable in the title role.

Sam Thornhill (a female) gives us a spry "Thank God I'm Old" as Joice Heth, the world's oldest woman, and Andrew Johansen's Tom Thumb delivers a cute "Bigger Isn't Better" that's all the more fun because it's graced by a pair of dancers on stilts. Kudos also to Sarah Johansen for her spirited, good-natured turn as the Blues Singer in "Black and White."

The dancer to watch is David Grindrod, whose high-stepping routines as the Ringmaster are a delight.

The overall energy level for which Talent Machine is known seemed a bit subdued Sunday afternoon. Hopefully, the excitement will be recaptured this time around. Take too much of that out, after all, and there's not much left in the way of music, comedy or drama to prop Barnum up.

"Barnum" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today and tomorrow, and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: 410-956-0512 or www.talentmachine.com.

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