Sometimes, what with the plethora of big-budget Broadway shows, earnestly striving showcase productions, and edgy experimental works that are performed every week here in Manhattan, I forget what it was that I first loved about theatre. The same thing that most kids love, I imagine: the immediacy, the excitement; the costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props (as Irving Berlin put it): the thrill of watching people who simply want to put on a show. This is the impulse that propels Brooklyn Family Theatre, a non-professional (but, as far as I can see, entirely capable) company who do community theatre in Park Slope. Don't turn your nose up: their production of Barnum, taken on its own terms, is an absolute delight.
I'll talk more about those terms in just a minute; let me start, though, by saying that this is a charming, modestly-scaled rendition of a musical comedy that actually benefits from a lack of flash. Barnum tells the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, premier American showman extraordinaire, from his early forays in glorified sideshow (promoting the supposedly 160-year-old Joice Heth as George Washington's nurse), through his international triumphs presenting General Tom Thumb and the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, up to his final and most lasting celebrity as partner (with a Mr. Bailey) in a circus that we now know as "the greatest show on earth."
Mark Bramble's sketchy book tells Barnum's story as a series of turns that are supposed to remind us of circus acts (but they feel more like livelier-than-average revue sketches). The central tension of the show, such as it is, is between Barnum and his colorful brand of humbuggery—hoodwinking audiences into believing illusions that they want to believe in, he says—and his more grounded wife Charity, who prefers order and stability. Bramble and his collaborators Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart, responsible for the buoyant music and clever lyrics, respectively, deliver a little humbug themselves in a version of Barnum's life that sticks to the basic facts in broad outline but speculates madly about the details (the big conflict at the end of Act I is whether Barnum will desert his wife to run off with Jenny Lind). No matter, Barnum is a tuneful, playful panorama of American pop culture from our great-great-grandfather's time: at its best, the score offers charmers like Tom Thumb's "Bigger Isn't Better" and the rousing march "Come Follow the Band," which entertain the pants off of the crowd without worrying too much how they fit into the book's logic.
The folks at Brooklyn Family Theatre understand this about Barnum, and co-directors Hector Coris and Phill Greenland have spent most of their time and resources making sure that the audience is entertained for two hours (and very little of their time fretting about details of plot and throughline). They've cast the show with an energetic, exuberant bunch of performers who take enormous pleasure in what they're doing; particular care is expended to make sure that the youngsters in the audience—plentiful, at the performance I attended—are having a good time.
Now here's where I manage your expectations just a bit. This is community theatre: don't look for elaborate sets and lighting (the show is performed in the sanctuary of a church); don't count on a company of actors with rosters of professional credits. On the other hand, do plan to get swept up in the sheer joy of the performance: the folks on stage and behind the scenes are clearly immersed in labors of love, and their care and passion are evident every moment of the show. Tall Jonathan Valuckas makes a gangly, cheerful Barnum, and Logan Tracey, as the more placid (but very spunky) Charity has a lovely singing voice and a charming, easy manner. The supporting cast includes six youngsters who join in the ensemble numbers and five adults who play what seem like dozens of roles among them; Andrew Deichman, who juggles nicely on several occasions as well as portrays Tom Thumb, makes the strongest impression among them.
Greenland and Coris have staged the transitions between scenes with as much attention as the scenes themselves; an interlude early in Act One, in which Deichman and company toss about the trappings of a lunchtime meal to set the stage for Barnum and Charity's "Colors of My Life" number, is especially fun. The co-directors have taken good measure of the talents of each of their players and found ways to show them all off to best advantage.
At the end, I found myself unexpectedly moved by the electricity that results when a whole bunch of performers, obviously having a ball, connect with a roomful of spectators who have allowed themselves to enjoy the humble thespic offerings of their fellows. It's a great way to pass an evening.