The NoHo Arts Center offers an excellent, small-scale production of this musical by Cy Coleman, Michael Stewart, and Mark Bramble.
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.