The entertainment, promotion and advertising of today owes a great deal to the great mind of master showman Phineas Taylor Barnum aka P.T. Barnum of circus fame.
When I teach college courses in public relations and mass media, Barnum's name is included in textbooks for his contributions to the field, debated by experts as both good and bad for his use of "puffery" and exaggerated claims.
What I never realized is there was a great woman at his side throughout most of his career, his wife Charity, who supported her husband while also chiding him for sensationalism.
Add to all of this eye-popping circus acts and you have every reason you need to visit Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, a stone's throw from Wrigley Field in Chicago, to see the all-star cast of award-winning actors for the rarely produced musical "Barnum," running until June 16.
The cast is led by Chicago native and Broadway, TV, and film actor Gene Weygandt as a better than believable Barnum, with Cory Goodrich turning in a fantastic turn as wife Charity, and the talented Summer Naomi Smart as "the Swedish Nightingale," singer Jenny Lind.
The show covers the period from 1835 through 1880 of Barnum's life, spanning his start in the biz and ending with his partnership with rival circus owner, James Anthony Bailey to form today's still vital Barnum and Bailey's Circus (which is now also connected with Ringling Bros.).
The original Broadway production launched in 1980 and ran for 854 performances with actor Jim Dale in the title role and Glenn Close playing his wife. When it closed and reopened in London in 1981 at the London Palladium for another 655 performances, Michael Crawford stepped in as Barnum.
The Mercury's production is the first major Chicago revival of the show in more than 20 years, led by multiple Jeff Award winners L. Walter Stearns as director with Eugene Dizon as musical director and Brenda Didier and Andrew Waters as co-choreographers with Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi of the Actor's Gymnasium as the circus feats director.
Prior to see this fascinating and fun production over the weekend, I had no idea Barnum had a romance with Lind, his star attraction in 1850 and being paid an unprecedented $1,000 a night for 150 nights. I also had forgotten he began his career with his permanent American Museum in New York City, which was controversial for his treatment of animals captured and held in captivity to display for profit, such as white Beluga whales and snakes, the latter being fed live rabbits before the audience. The museum burned to the ground in 1865 and he devised circus train travel and touring exhibition.
The script features the real people (and a glimpse at their personal stories) Barnum made so famous, like Lind, Jumbo the Elephant, midget Tom Thumb and Joice Heth, the American slave Barnum billed as the 160-year-old baby nurse who cared for George Washington. (When the authenticity of her real age was questioned, Barnum promised a public autopsy when she died, later attended by 1,500 spectators charged 50 cents to watch. After it was declared she was actually only around 80-years of age, Barnum announced the body examined had been a decoy, and the actual Joice was still alive and on tour in Europe.)
Ballads and ragtime tunes fill this show, including "There's a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute" and "Come Follow the Band." It was originally nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical for Mark Bramble and Best Original Score for Michael Stewart and Cy Coleman.
Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets range from $25-$59 at MercuryTheaterChicago.com or (773) 325-1700 or in person at the theater box office. There are discounts of up to 50 percent for groups of 10 or more.