BARNUM: The Greatest Show in South Jersey

by Jessica Martin

It has been said that Phineas Taylor Barnum did not really originate the saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.”. Whether he said it or not, there is no need to feel like a sucker if you go to see the musical based on Barnum’s life, now playing at Haddon Township’s Ritz Theatre. You will get your money’s worth and more, with no flim-flams or hoaxes. From the moment you enter the theatre, the stage is filled with aerialists, acrobats, jugglers and other performers, and you are likely to find a pitchwoman or mime peddling “peanuts, popcorn and Crackerjack” in the aisles.

Mike Doheny as P.T. Barnum in The Ritz Theatre production of BARNUM. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

The musical follows Barnum’s life from 1835 to 1880. In reality, there was much more to it than can be covered in two and a half hours, but the show does its best to depict his fascinating journey. P. T. is the eternal dreamer, pursuing “the colors of his life.” His practical wife, Charity (called “Chairy”) would rather he had a steady job in a factory, but stands by him nonetheless. He takes over the struggling American Museum and makes it a huge success, presenting such attractions as Joice Heth, billed as “the oldest woman alive” and George Washington’s nurse, and General Tom Thumb, “the smallest person that ever walked alone.” The museum burns down, but Barnum, undaunted, creates a traveling museum that later becomes a circus. For a while, he leaves show business for the “black and white” world of politics. (Or is that just a different kind of circus?) He was mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut and in real life an abolitionist, social reformer and philanthropist. Now back to the show—but why spoil it for you by telling you any more?

Michael Doheny is perfect as Barnum, part mountebank, part charmer, taking you with him all the way. Megan Pisors is a demure yet imposing Chairy. Annie Claude Chartrand has a truly beautiful voice that makes her a very believable “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind. Another standout is Danielle Harley, who doubles as Joice Heth and the Blues Singer in the “Black and White” number. Special kudos must go to two instructors from the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts who appear in the show and trained the performing ensemble in their various skills. W. Kris Clayton, who also designed the dazzling set, is a juggler and stilt walker extraordinaire. Jackie Zalewski is the lovely aerialist whose graceful moves are sometimes used to complement the actions and emotions of the actors.

Stage director Bruce A. Curless has added yet another laurel leaf to his crown with his inspired staging of this show. The spectacular costumes are designed by Rob Paluso. Music and vocal direction is by Andre Vermeulen, choreography by Jennifer Zellers, lighting design by Chris Miller and, as mentioned above, set design by W. Kris Clayton. All are flawless.

If you want to forget bad weather such as we had last weekend, the economy, or your own troubles, go to see BARNUM. And don’t be afraid to bring the kids. They may not be interested in the story, but they’ll love the circus acts, especially “Jumbo.” And so will you.

Book by Mark Bramble
Lyrics by Michael Stewart
Music by Cy Coleman
Directed by Bruce A. Curless
October 20-November 19, 2011
The Ritz Theatre
915 White Horse Pike
Haddon Township, NJ

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