Several months ago, when I was interviewing Walter Stearns as part of my “gig” on Chicago Theatre Reviews, a Comcast monthly tv show, I said to him that doing a production of “Barnum” on the stage at his Mercury Theater, might have been a little to much of a “bite” to chew on. This is a small intimate theater with a small, intimate stage and “Barnum” is a “three ring musical”. I mean, when was the last time a theater took on this challenge. Walter assured me that he and his staff were well aware of the challenge that they had taken on and were up to accepting it 200%. Well, tonight this production opened at The Mercury Theater and not only did Walter bite it, and chew it, but he was able to spit out one of this season’s best productions on any stage! Take note Jeff committee, you may have found your award winner(s) with this wonderful production of the life story of one P.T.Barnum.
With a book by Mark Bramble ( based on the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum), music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Michael Stewart, and a cast of energetic and talented performers this is the purest of entertainment experiences. Stearns and his cast have become circus performers and one can see that the work they put into learning and the hours of practicing have paid off. The circus choreography was handled by a pure expert; Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi of The Actor’s Gymnasium ( also known for her work at Lookingglass) and one might match these performers up to the actual performers of “The Greatest Show On Earth” this November. I am sure that when Walter made this a part of their first season he knew that to make it work, he would need a top notch actor, one that could do anything on the stage to handle the role of “Barnum”. If you are a theater regular in Chicago, the name Gene Weygandt would probably pop into your head as the ideal actor. Stearns had the same feeling and that is who you get the pleasure of watching a she brings the greatest con-man to ever live, to life. He is sensational as he finds a way to bring people out to see the smallest man in the world, the oldest woman in the world, The largest elephant and much more to the “real people”.
His wife is played to perfection by Cory Goodrich and the notorious Jenny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale” by the fantastik Summer Naomi Smart. While these are the main characters, they are nothing without the ensemble- the circus performers who bring their acrobatics, juggling balancing, and tumbling.Many handling several roles: Karissa Barney,Nathan Drackett,Kris Hyland, Taylor Krasne-Wilton, Christian Libonati ( a solid performance as Tom Thumb, the smallest man in the world), Donica Lynn ( who plays the oldest woman in the world, but will knock your sox off with her blues singing role as well), Kevin McKillip ( a great ringmaster, who also handles the role of James A. Bailey, Barnum’s partner in later years),Leah Morrow,Jeremy Sonkin, Ryan Westwood and J.Tyler Whitmer. While this list may be short in numbers for a show this large, it is large in talent as actors, singers dancers and doing their “circus stuff”! Bravo!
The set by Richard and Jaqueline Penrod fills the stage with color and a circus atmosphere ,and the lighting by Jason Epperson fills the space well. The costumes(Carol J. Blanchard) are up to the standards of any major Broadway production that comes to town and Joanna Iwanicka’s puppets are adorable. The entire production crew truly got into this production with their hears and souls, which is evident by what is presented on the stage:
The musical direction by Eugene Dizon and his six musicians sounds like a 26 piece orchestra. The choreography by the team of Brenda Didier and Andrew Waters is sheer energy and put together with the acrobatics of Ms Hernandez-Distasi is pure magic. Many Chicago theater patrons are familiar with 500 Clown member Molly Brennan, quite the clown herself, and her work and training with our clown cast members isanother glowing touch to this marvelous production. There are only a few songs that are memorable- “There is a sucker Born Ev’ry Minute” ( the opening song) and “Come Follow The Band” ( the unique opening of the second act) are both special, but even though the other songs will not be on your mind as you head home, the production itself will! This is one you will want to return to see a second time, and even bring a friend so that they can experience the magic that you felt during your two hours at The Mercury Theater located at 3745 N. Southport. “Barnum” will runn through June 16th ( looking for a Father’s day gift? this is it! Hell, why wait, Mother’s Day comes first! FYI- The music is unique in that you will hear Marches, Ballads, Jazz, Ragtime, and of course, Circus! Chicago hasn’t seen a production of this show in over 20 years, and this one, on the stage at The Mercury, was “worth the wait”!
Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.
Thursdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.
Fridays at 8 p.m.
Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.
Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets range from $25-$59 which if you compare this to some of the “road shows” that come in are priced at is a steal.
To order yours ( and I suggest not waiting as this is a smaller theater) call 773-325-1700 , stop by the box office or online visit www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com‘
The theater is connected to two excellent dining choices, Deleece and Cullen’s and of course Wrigleyville and Southport are filled with other choices.
Valet parking is available and there is some street parking ( watch your dates as to Cubs home games, as the area gets a little busy during these periods)
To see what others say, visit www.theatreinchicago.com , click on Review Round-up and then click “Barnum”