Review: McKenney plays Barnum

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Published: 10th May, 2019

Did you love the film The Greatest Showman? Well come and see the real story in the new live production of Barnum the Circus Musical at the Comedy Theatre. Thrill to the magnificent circus stunts and the humour and pathos of the story of Phineas T Barnum, who didn’t mind using a bit of humbug to bring an audience in. When you look at the world around us now, perhaps not much has changed!

Triple threat Todd McKenney brings all his magic to the title role. The story many people know from The Greatest Showman is brought to life so vividly by a brilliant cast in Barnum the circus musical. McKenney’s stage charisma is unbeatable, and from his first appearance on stage until the final curtain, he holds the audience in the palm of his hand. His singing, dancing and acting is seamless, and watching him is a great master class for any aspiring performer.

But Barnum is not a one-man show – McKenney is ably partnered by the hugely talented Rachael Beck as his wife Charity, in a many-layered performance. McKenney and Beck are obviously comfortable working together and it’s a great stage partnership.

Unlike in the film, in the musical the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind is played by someone who has just the right operatic vocal chops, and Suzie Mathers’ Jenny is a delight. In multiple gender-bending roles, ringmaster Kirby Burgess is a performer to watch – everything she does is simply splendid. Also notable in his professional debut is Joshua Reckless as Tom Thumb, showing natural polish and a splendid music theatre voice.

Barnum is quite a traditional musical, without the need for too many bells and whistles, because the performers and the simple but clever staging create all the magic we need. Even the stagehands are in costume, only distinguished from the cast because they are wearing headphones!

The ensemble is a young group of performers who give their all to the show and the audience, creating a real sense of enthusiasm and freshness. Although I had seen a previous Barnum, starring the brilliant Reg Livermore, I had forgotten how memorable the songs were, not just classics like “There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute” and the catchy “Come Follow the Band”, but the soulful ballads like “The Colours of My Life”. And it’s impossible to stop your feet from tapping along with the upbeat “Join The Circus” – in modern parlance, it’s an earworm. Quite simply, the score captures your heart, and the ten-piece orchestra which plays above the stage, led by musical director Stephen Gray, is superb.

Complementing the principals is a fine troupe of real circus performers, and the result is many heart stopping moments as they perform their death-defying stunts. Watch out for the routine involving McKenney just before interval!

This would be an ideal show to introduce anyone to the theatre from upper primary age and it conveys the magic that excellent theatre can produce.

Barnum is quite simply one of the best shows on right now, so don’t miss it!


Julie Houghton reviewed BARNUM The Circus Musical at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre.  Tickets are still available: