"Barnum," the 1980 musical about that great showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, is very rarely produced in Chicago. There is a reason. It's really hard to stuff a circus into a theater, especially when you're trying to do a legitimate Cy Coleman musical at the same time.
Attempt this thing and you've got to wrestle with strongmen, a Swedish soprano, the oldest woman alive and the smallest man in the world. And did I mention the need for elephants, or some reasonable facsimile thereof? Even if you have all this and all the clowns who could fit in Wrigley Field, heck, even if you've got the Cirque du Soleil, if you don't then have a singer who can nail that signature ditty "The Colors of My Life," or that great production number "Come Follow the Band," or the blues song "Black and White," you're still down for the count. Ah yes, be very afraid of "Barnum," suckers.
So let's start with a heartfelt tip of the hat. The Mercury Theater, a venue with no flyspace, no real history of self-production on this level, and barely enough room in the wings to swing a poodle, let alone an elephant, has indeed stuffed a jolly and tuneful circus inside its friendly neighborhood confines in the Southport Street corridor. It's employing the sort of top-drawer Equity talent (the likes of Summer Naomi Smart, and Gene Weygandt of "Wicked") that one generally has to drive downtown or out to the suburbs to see. The ensemble contains plenty of juggling actors who can flip, twirl and clown. That world's smallest dude makes a stringed-out appearance, as does a believable, if fabric, giant pachyderm. There are stilt walkers on the sidewalk, clowns in the seats (be warned), beautiful ladies in the air — and a big, fat, family-friendly show in a little theater, with a genial host (Weygandt) in the title role. The designers of this North Side pageant, Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, have performed a minor miracle, stretching their highly imaginative fabric all the way to the bare brick of the Mercury, which bounces with infectious life and enthusiasm. Plenty of people in this cast are stepping (or dancing to the choreography of Brenda Didier and Andrew Waters) well outside of their usual wheelhouse for your edification and amusement here, and you have to admire the chutzpah and, in many cases, the formidable chops.
What you don't get from director L. Walter Stearns' production is a discernible point of view or an emotional center — the show lacks a fresh take on the story that draws you into the biographical narrative, which is not easy as Mark Bramble's book was always a sketchy affair. Still, there is room here for edge, complexity and an ironic twist on the material. Weird as it may seem, "Barnum" has some formatively similarities with the great musical "Chicago," and it can be mined for the sadness and struggle behind the eyes of those who flim-flam for a living, and those who must stand and watch (the warm-centered Cory Goodrich plays Charity Barnum, a wife who must suffer through the arrival of the aforementioned Swedish soprano).
Stearns doesn't really track the episodic telling of the story, mostly ignoring the chances for sparser revelation in favor of bringing on, say, a bunch of dancing poodles pulled by a string. During "The Colors of My Life," which should be a gorgeously reflective song, Weygandt pulls out so many trick flowers — the colors of his life, get it? — that you can barely follow the lyrics. This emblematic moment was one of many where this "Barnum" overloads itself with stuff and clutter, when deeper, simpler truths were there to be mined underneath. Only in the last moments does Weygandt get enough of a breather that he really can open up to the audience. In places, "Barnum" needs a glancing blow more than a look-at-what-we-got parade.
All that said, this eye-popping show really has a lot to please an audience likely to be walking in this theater's doors for the first time. Smart and Goodrich make sure the vocals are beautifully sung, Weygandt holds everything together (with a few flashes of unfettered inspiration; he needs room for more) and the homemade circus generally comes to town, all around you, with popcorn in the lobby. There, thank goodness, goes the neighborhood.
When: Through June 16
Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $25-$59 at 773-325-1700 or mercurytheaterchicago.com