Pop Culture TheaterJune 19, 2012


Here’s a riddle for you… what’s FREE of charge, on a stage and up high off the ground, has old-fashioned fun and fire twirling, and features the scenic Philadelphia skyline as a backdrop?

Give up?

It’s “Barnum”, the musical based on the life of circus maestro Phineas T. Barnum, being presented this week in Camden’s Wiggins Waterfront Park (June 21, 22, and 23 at 8:00 PM) by the Ritz Theatre Company, in association with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, Camden County Parks, Art Reach and PNC Arts Alive.

When the Ritz Theatre put on “Barnum” last fall, the show was a real crowd pleaser, with an appeal, says Bruce A. Curless, the Ritz Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director and the director of “Barnum”, that goes beyond regular theatre goers.”  And the company has undertaken an even more ambitious project with this series of shows. Along with the elements that make “Barnum” such a favorite – the songs, the dancing and the circus tricks – these performances offer free admission and features costumed ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters onstage, as well as open captioning, similar to what you’d see at the opera.

And, prior to the Saturday, June 23rd show, there will be a Sensory Tour, beginning at 7 PM, which will allow sight-challenged audience members the opportunity to “see by touching” the costumes, props and elements of the set and also hear an audio description of what will be happening on stage.

The location for this production – on the waterfront at Wiggins Park, overlooking the river – is special, too. “Working in conjunction with Camden County Parks, we can present these shows in a completely unintimidating environment. The location makes it clear that this is not an elite event – it’s for EVERYone and every age.”

And the set – oh, my! Kris Clayton, the Ritz Theatre Technical Director/Production Manager/Set Designer (“in theatre,” he says, “you have to be able to do it all.”) describes it by saying, “It’s huge, with a grid-like super structure that is bigger than our whole building (at the Ritz Theatre) and includes both a tightrope and a trapeze.”

It mixes the old – “the dirt-bowl style of circus” – with the new –“steel girders and concert style lighting”, and “it has a LOT of color!”

Besides what’s taking place on stage, you’ll notice other elements designed to create the sense of a “real” circus. “There will be barkers on the grounds, selling peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jacks,” Curless says, “and we’ll even have a tarot card reader.”

Both Curless and Clayton emphasized that, besides being a physically large scale production, “Barnum” is also huge in scope. This is in large part due to the Ritz Theatre Company’s partners – Art Reach, an organization dedicated to bringing arts and culture to underserved audiences; PNC Arts Alive, a $5 million, 5-year initiative that provides grant money to produce accessible arts programming; the Camden County Parks; and the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

“Because the shows are free,” Clayton says, “people who maybe couldn’t afford to buy tickets will be able to come. And, having ASL shadow interpreters on stage, right next to the actors, will open up the experience to a lot more people.”

Also, the open captioning and pre-show sensory tour both provided by the Ritz/Art Reach connection, gives people who are hearing-impaired and sight-impaired a chance to more fully enjoy the shows.

“The accessibility aspect is a real source of pride for all of us,” Clayton says.

Collaborating with Art Reach, Curless explains, has numerous benefits, and one of the most important is how it benefits the Ritz Theatre Company’s outreach efforts. “Art Reach extends to a very wide base of people with disabilities and challenges. By working together, we can much more effectively spread the word about this kind of program to the very people who will want to know about it.”

And, he further explains, Art Reach is a non profit that also receives support from the PNC Arts Alive initiative. “By supporting our programming and a service organization working with us, PNC is a good value for their financial support.”

“Barnum”

Thursday, June 21, Friday, June 22, and Saturday, June 23

8:00 PM

Saturday, June 23 only, 7:00 PM – Pre-show Sensory Tour

Wiggins Waterfront Park

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Shen Shellenberger
Shen Shellenberger

Shen’s been a Jersey girl for most of her life, other than living for a three-year stretch in Portland, Oregon, and six magical months in Tokyo. Shen loves the arts in all of its various forms – from the beauty of a perfectly-placed base hit to the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll – and has successfully passed on this appreciation to her three grown children. Shen’s most recent jobs include WXPN (1993-2001) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2003-present). Shen also has been a working freelancer for 25 years, and operated her own frame shop in Mt. Holly in the late-70s.