BARNUM -- In the Kennedy Center Opera House through July 11.

Question to child: Which did you like better -- "Barnum" or the circus?


Question from child to adult: Which did you like better?


There were some disagreements over details -- the child was sorry that there was no cotton candy for sale at the Kennedy Center, but the adult was glad; the adult thought the Opera House smelled better than the Armory, but the child didn't consider that a significant factor; the adult noticed that the circus prices were considerably cheaper; but the child was unaffected by this information -- the chief reason was the same. With fewer than two dozen actors and no animals, the musical comedy's extract of circus gave the appearance of being fuller and livelier than the circus itself.

This is a triumph of boisterous theatricality, or, as it's identified in the theme of the show, "humbug." The daring feats in "Barnum" are limited to a few high swings and tightrope walks, and the only elephant, which was made of cloth, didn't stand on its hind legs. (The adult, normally a circus fan, began to droop at this year's version, half of which, at least, seemed to consist of various animals standing on their hind legs.) But from the moment one enters the theater, where the stage is hung with ropes and flanked with boxes and the multi-talented actors are already cavorting along the backs of the orchestra chairs and grabbing members of the audience and giving them hearty handshakes or sloppy kisses -- the spirit of high-energy silliness prevails.

How "Barnum" compares to other musical comedies is a whole other discussion. The excuse to hold it all together, a dichotomy between P. T. Barnum representing colorful kokum, and his wife Chairy, representing muted respectability, is a theme even thinner than circus motifs. Stacy Keach, as Barnum, and Dee Hoty, as Mrs. Barnum, make a spicy unmatched pair, but there has been no attempt to make their marriage seem coherent. One minute they can't keep their hands off each other, the next he is off with Jenny Lind as if she represents his only chance at romance, and the next he is back, with Mrs. Barnum smilingly treating the affair as another of his pranks.

Of course, the child, having enjoyed such musicals as "Sophisticated Ladies" and "42nd Street," didn't know that musical comedies were supposed to provide anything much to string together the songs and fancy choreography.