book, music & lyrics by Jonathan Brielle
based on the William Lindsay Gresham novel of the same name
directed by Gilbert Cates
The Geffen Playhouse
through May 23
Where's the nightmare? Not nearly as dark as it needs to be or musically enticing enough, Nightmare Alley at the Geffen, by its very nature should be diabolically thrilling like a Kander and Ebb musical but it doesn't cut the mustard, even with its exceptional cast including James Barbour, Larry Cedar and Mary Gordon Murray.
There has never been a musical show to my knowledge exploring the 'carni' (carnival) world of Freaks and Geeks. People who work in this atmosphere usually come from unsavory pasts and harbor deep secrets, so they blend right into the world of conning. The unfortunate thing about this book is that we do not find out very much about anyone's past and consequently it is most difficult to sympathize with any of the characters as the storyline progresses. Zeena (Murray), for example, and her husband Pete (Cedar) from the look of the striking banner once had an intriguing act, but we are never allowed entry. What about a flashback? When we meet them, he's a hopeless drunk and she's reduced to reading tarot cards. Pete has an accident, dies, but comes back as a ghost to haunt the man responsible for his death, a loner named Stan Carlisle (Barbour) whose father was supposedly a preacher. Concerning Stan's background, there are also many unanswered questions. He falls for another employee Molly (Sarah Glendenning), works his way out of the carvinal with her in tow and up the ladder into a fake evangelical world full of increasing deceit and betrayal. Although Molly and Stan are lovers, we never really witness them 'falling in love'. If their true love is questionable, how can we be affected by their destinies at play's end? This is but one example of many gaps in the book. Despite Barbour's fierce delivery, conviction and depth, his big numbers in Act II "Nobody Home"/"Surrender" matter less.
Musicwise, Brielle stretches all over the place. "Don't You Love to Watch What People Do?" reminded me somewhat in theme of Kander and Ebb's "Class" from Chicago, but not nearly as bold, cynical , satirical or hummable, for that matter.
The ensemble is first rate. Murray, Cedar and Michael McCarty play multiple roles. Murray's best is the ruthless psychiatrist Dr. Lilith, and Cedar is spot-on in all three especially as the gullible matron Addie Peabody. Barbour has such an engaging bigger-than-life style that this part is a fit. Vocally he slays me every time. He ought to be playing a musical version of Elmer Gantry. Female chorus members Melody Butiu, Anise E. Ritchie, Leslie Stevens, and Alet Taylor all shine.
Cates' staging is continuously fluid and the set by John Arnone colorful and evocative.
Maybe with some reworking, Nightmare Alley will improve. I wanted chills, thrills and spills, to be on the edge of my seat - and with this kind of material, it could happen.
3 out of 5 stars