‘Barnum’ is a funny, feisty look at an American icon

Daniel Forest Sullivan, Joy Clark, Todd Yard (“PT Barnum”), Matthew Kossack*, Alexa Wang Moonbox Productions BARNUM Photograph: Earl Christie Photography

BOSTON – As “The Greatest Show on Earth” – aka the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus – prepares to take a permanent leave next month after 146 years of entertaining people all over the world, we are left to ponder the legacy of the men who joined forces to bring those three rings to life.

One of those men, P.T. Barnum, was renowned for saying “there’s a sucker born every minute,” which he never actually said, but that doesn’t stop the musical “Barnum” from creating a production number out of it and even reprising it in the second act.

And while Phineas Taylor Barnum (Todd Yard) gained fame as a showman who believed his showmanship could trump the truth – others have followed in his footsteps fairly recently – he was also many other things, including an author and politician,.

Yes, there are circus tricks aplenty, but at its heart “Barnum,” being presented now through April 30 by Moonbox Productions in the Calderwood Pavilion of the BCA, is a love story between one of the greatest showman in history and his wife Charity (Shonna Cirone), the New England woman who stood beside her man through the fat and the lean.

Behind many successful men is a loving and supportive spouse , and as Barnum’s balloon rose and then plummeted back to earth several times, Charity was always there to provide him a soft landing. Their love song duet – “The Colors of my Life” – is a vocal highlight, lovingly and tenderly performed, one of several hummable tunes in the score by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart.

Barnum” features cast members performing juggling, card tricks, plate-spinning etc. with instruction from Esh Circus Acts; everyone in the cast takes part in the fun and theater-goers are invited onstage to get involved in the magic.

Barnum graduates from “humbugs” — small hoaxes such as a 160-year-old woman named Joice Heth (Carla Martinez) turned nursemaid to George Washington – to a higher calling with his purchase of the American Museum from James Scudder, presenting modern marvels such as General Tom Thumb and Jumbo the Elephant.

In one of his frequent asides to the audience, Barnum confides that “marital humbugs” are the hardest to pull off.

Shonna Cirone* (Charity Barnum) and Todd Yard (PT Barnum) Moonbox Productions BARNUM
Photograph: Earl Christie Photography

And when disaster struck in the form of a fire and he had to start all over, he did it with determination, optimism, cleverness and sleight-of-hand that allow him to sell you something with a twinkle in his eye.

It takes a risk-taker and a gambler such as Barnum to guarantee a performer $1,000 a night for 150 nights You might remember Jessica Kundla’s strong turn as Carrie Pipperidge in last summer’s “Carousel” at Reagle Music Theatre, and here she is the beauteous Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” who shakes the very foundations of Barnum’s marriage during a long tour across the country.

Rachel Bertone, who has added to her reputation as a director/choreographer with each show, injects “Barnum” with the requisite energy and lively, sparkling production numbers such as “One Brick at a Time,” a spectacular “Come Join the Band,” which opens the second act and the rousing “Join the Circus.”

Barnum” is a true team effort from the ensemble cast with special mention to dance captains Matthew Kossack and Daniel Forest Sullivan. Kossack also served as the “circus captain,” aided by Alexa Wang as a uni-cyclist and aerialist.

Musical director Dan Rodriguez and his musicians perform the score with the energy and enthusiasm befitting the circus-themed production numbers, and the other production values are strong across the board, from Cameron McEachern’s set design, John Malinowki’s lighting – which actually called for some rarely seen these days “follow spots” – Brian McCoy’s sound and Marian Bertone’s costumes, which included some lovely period dresses for Cirone as Charity Barnum.

“Barnum” is a  funny, feisty, tuneful look at an American icon, a look back at a time and place that actually seems — in many ways — to have returned to the current political arena.

Barnum.” Book by Mark Bramble, score by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart. Directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone. Presented by Moonbox Productions in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through April 30. Tickets: bostontheatrescene.com/season/Barnum.