Yvette Lawrence and James J. Mellon in Barnum
(Photo © RobertDouglasPhotography.com)
Yvette Lawrence and James J. Mellon in Barnum
(Photo © RobertDouglasPhotography.com)
A show like Barnum would seem to require a huge orchestra, dazzling costumes, and a cast big enough to crowd the Hippodrome in order to reach its full potential. Nonetheless, the NoHo Arts Center has managed to lift this musical to new heights with a minimal orchestra, a cast of 12, and a stage smaller than most living rooms. It turns out that all Barnum really needs to succeed is charismatic acting, inventive direction, and rousing choreography.

With a book by Mark Bramble and songs by composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Michael Stewart, the show traces the life of the legendary huckster Phineas Taylor Barnum (James J. Mellon) from the purchase of his first sideshow act through his partnership with James A. Bailey of the famed circus. Cleverly, the musical takes the structure of a circus as the various acts come front and center; they include Joice Heth, the oldest woman alive (played with gospel gusto by Regina LeVert), and the miniscule Tom Thumb (the deceptively tall and buoyant Adam Simmons), who sing about the joys and tomfoolery of show business.

Barnum's primary focus is on the stormy but loving relationship between P.T. and his wife, Charity (Yvette Lawrence), a suffragist at a time when the idea of women having the vote was societal effrontery. "Chairy" attempts to tame her wild husband -- to remove some of the colors of his life, in the words of one of the songs -- but he finally convinces her that the world desperately needs his particular brand of hogwash.

The show has some delightful songs, but the score as a whole lacks the cohesion of Coleman's best works -- e.g., City of Angels and On The Twentieth Century. Fortunately, a first-rate company puts over even the slightest numbers. Emily Kosloski captures the eloquence of soprano Jenny Lind, the so-called Swedish Nightingale, and she actually made me appreciate the song "Love Makes Such Fools of Us All" for the first time.

But the lion's share of praise in this production belongs to Mellon, who has a grin large enough to rival the smirk of The Joker. Joviality seems to come out of his pores. Mellon speeds through the tongue-twisting "Museum Song" with Danny Kaye-like flair. In addition, he plays well with Lawrence; their duet "I Like Your Style" displays the characters' great affection for each other despite their differences. While Mellon portrays Barnum as a man of many words, his long-suffering wife manages to leave him flustered. Lawrence's Charity displays a creeping smile whenever she scolds her husband, as if she can't conceal her admiration for him.

Robert Mammana wears many hats in Barnum, playing the cigar chomping Julius Goldschmidt, the mousy Scutter, southern gentleman Stratton, and the earnest James Bailey. The actor switches back and forth between these personalities like Sybil. The members of the ensemble, adept at juggling, walking tightropes, doing backs flips, and other circus exploits, capture the childhood wonderment of circus life. They even manage to garner humor from stage prop accidents, such as an overturned water pitcher leaking all over the set.

Despite the show's small budget, the creative team has worked its own wonders. Costume designer Shon LeBlanc has created a frilly, purple dress with what resembles a birdcage as a trellis for Kosloski, and his threads for the rest of the cast -- particularly Adam Simmons's black and white harlequin suit with pom-pom sleeves -- are equally striking. Director-choreographer Josh Prince takes even the simplest of numbers, such as the act two opener "Come Follow The Band," and makes them grander with snappy dancing. There's a wonderfully smooth flow to the show, as Prince uses talking statues to announce the next act and has clowns morph into construction workers building a new museum. Phineas Taylor Barnum would be proud of this production.