Being my first time in Chicago, I was also very excited to go to the Mercury Theatre for the first time. First off, the space is awesome — intimate, yet big enough to do a circus musical or other relatively big shows (hence their upcoming production of The Color Purple). It’s attached to a restaurant and an Irish pub — two things, that more theatres should be attached to. It’s a social experience from the time you walk in the door. If you do visit Chicago, this is a theatre you should go to. I absolutely loved the feel, experience and overall vibe of The Mercury Theatre.
Now to Barnum…. it’s not the strongest show ever written, but director L. Walter Stearns understood the material in a way that I haven’t seen on stage for a long time. It was clear he knew exactly how he wanted to tell the story, so that the book by Mark Bramble (42nd Street) was full of depth and emotion. Though the story focuses in on P.T. Barnum (the charismatic Gene Weygandt) and his wife, Chairy Barnum (Cory Goodrich), it’s wrapped up in the circus, and the story of Barnum’s eccentric life. The foyer included historical photographs of Barnum’s life, the circus, his museum that burned down, and more. It not only emotionally affected me, but I learned more about how Barnum & Bailey’s circus started. Win-win on all levels.
The small supporting cast was incredibly talented – most were quadruple threats. Not only could they act, sing, and dance, they all had a few tricks in their hat that was fully realized in the beautiful “Finale” at the end of the show. Even though it clearly is not a “Cirque-show”, I was so impressed with the cast, and it also lends to the fact that the choreography by Brenda Didier and Andrew Waters was incredibly tight, interesting and perfect for that small intimate space. It felt like a huge circus, but in an incredibly tight space. The stage pictures were outstanding, which should also be credited to the beautiful designed set by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod. (The colors were beautiful!) Overall, it was really evident that this was a very strong production staff that all shared the same vision and was able to communicate that effectively to the stage.
A few stand-outs: “Black and White” sung by Donica Lynn was fabulous. I wanted to hear more — a lot more. Summer Naomi Smart was devine as Jenny Lind — beautifully sung and helped shape the entire second act’s emotional core between Barnum and his wife. Barnum and Chairy’s duet, “The Colors of My Life” was fantastic — one of my favorite numbers of Cy Coleman’s interesting score. And I absolutely loved the Ringmaster’s (Kevin McKillip) introduction to the scenes and the narrative quality to his character — he was perfect for the role.
Now, the whole show revolves around Barnum and Gene Weygandt (of Wicked fame – he played Oz) holds the show together quite well. He created emotional depth in a script that on-the-surface feels a bit superficial, but I fell in love with his quirks — the Prince of Humbug. The only moment in the show that I wanted a little more was when Barnum’s wife passes away. That moment needed to be longer so that the audience could understand the depth of what they just witnessed. Weygandt’s singing was superb, his interaction with the cast was interesting and creative, and he does a great job holding this circus together.
Overall, the show is extremely well-produced, and I was incredibly happy that I had the opportunity to take the trip to Mercury Theatre, and see the exciting work that this being done there. If I’m ever back in Chicago, I’ll be back because I know that the experience that I have will not only be extremely fun and social, but the level of talent and care of production qualities is top-notch.
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