This, folks, is entertainment

Review: `Barnum' with an electrifying performance from Beau Bridges gets it right.

September 11, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

He gave us the word "Jumbo" and the phrase "Greatest Show on Earth." He made a superstar out of Tom Thumb, a midget in a soldier's uniform, and brought a European singer to our shores and made her a sensation as the Swedish Nightingale.

P. T. Barnum may have been American entertainment's first larger-than-life figure. An expert at figuring out what the people wanted and then giving it to them, he was even better at turning the process around: taking what he had and convincing people that was what they wanted to see.

A&E's "P. T. Barnum," a two-part miniseries from Hallmark Entertainment airing tomorrow and Monday nights, is much like its subject. It's subtle as a boulder, shallow as a puddle and garish as a circus poster. It's also marvelously entertaining, thanks to a zealous, wide- eyed but somehow never over-the-top performance from Beau Bridges and a script from Lionel Chetwynd ("The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz") that knows its top priority is to entertain, not to document.

We first meet P.T. in April 1891, lying on his deathbed and reading a premature obituary printed in a New York newspaper. Seems the publisher is a good friend and didn't want Barnum to be dead to have to read all the good things to be written about him. This pleases the old man greatly and prompts him to think back on the rather extraordinary life that's about to end.

Cut back to 1826. A young Barnum (Jordan Bridges, Beau's son) is struggling to make a living as a Brooklyn shop clerk. But his heart's nowhere near being in it. He'd much rather spend time at a local tent show, where a slave who's billed as the 161-year-old former nurse to George Washington is the main attraction.

A cocksure Barnum buys the tent show and the slave (he quickly emancipates her; Barnum, we're reminded repeatedly, had the best of hearts). When the skeptical woman asks Barnum if he wouldn't like to know how old she really is, we get our first indication of what sort of showman the young man will become. "I already know," he tells her. "You're 161. I'd rather not discuss it further."

Barnum's successes quickly mount. Using borrowed money and an almost limitless supply of guile, he opens a museum in New York and starts attracting massive crowds with a simple formula: Find something that people haven't seen before and promote the heck out of it.

Wisely, "P. T. Barnum" concentrates on its subject's life as a showman. True, his wives -- Charity (Cynthia Dale), to whom he was married 44 years, and Nancy (Stephanie Morgenstern), who married him the year after his first wife's death, even though he was 40 years her senior -- are given key supporting roles. Both actresses serve as welcome counterweights to Bridges' exuberance.

But this is not so much biography as celebration. In the capable hands of Beau Bridges, Barnum is so electric a figure it's impossible to turn away from the guy -- replicating the experience many 19th-century Americans had at his shows. The facts of his life -- his politics, his family, his economic woes -- are mentioned but given fairly short shrift. Which reflects, one suspects, the real-life Barnum's priorities.

`P.T. Barnum'

What: A two-part miniseries on America's first great showman

When: 8 p.m.-10 p.m. tomorrow and Monday (repeats 10 p.m.-midnight, midnight-2 a.m. and 2 a.m.-4 a.m. both nights)

Where: A&E

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