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Theater Review: Nightmare Alley: Adventures Under The Big Top

Editor-at-Large

Directed by Gilbert Cates, the musical Nightmare Alley, on stage at The Geffen Playhouse, is a production that succeeds, despite being somewhat derivative.  This is largely due to the spellbinding performance of James Barbour and an outstanding cast.

The book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle are sometimes familiar, but always entertaining. Set in 1932 in the Dust Bowl, in Act I Barbour’s character Stan, a slick talking, hard drinking preacher’s son turned con man, meets Molly, played by the very talented Sarah Glendening, who is part of a traveling side show where she is “electrocuted” every night in a rigged ersatz electric chair.  He joins the troop, helps in building up profits, and eventually falls in love with the beautiful Molly, who likewise falls in love with him.

In Act II, Stan goes back to his roots and opens a Holy Roller church where he and Molly engage in some deceptive practices, coning parishioners out of their material possessions. Molly becomes pregnant and threatens to leave Stan for “a better life.” 

The excellent cast includes Mary Gordon Murray as the Tarot Lady Zeena in Act I and the despicable psychiatrist Dr. Ritter in Act II.  Murray opens the show and as soon as she begins to sing, you know  you are in the hands of a polished performer.  Zeena is married to Pete, played by Larry Cedar, an alcoholic failure who has the lowly job of playing a monster behind a scrim.  Cedar also plays multiple characters, all of whom have the same southern accent.

Michael McCarty, a seasoned Broadway veteran, is superb as Clem, the owner and barker of the financially strapped traveling carnival in Act I and Ezra Grimble in Act II, who goes to Preacher Stan to ask for a séance to resurrect his deceased kin.  McCarty developed two distinctly different characters, from their physical life to their speech and singing patterns, and is a joy to watch.

Set designer John Arnone transformed the venue into a lavish, festive Big Top with hundreds of colored Christmas lights draped across the stage and against the walls of the theatre, complemented by colorful, billowing draped curtains, which unfold like Austrian shades  replicating the inside of a tent.  His Act II design of the church is outstanding with a giant illuminated cross looming over the stage.

Despite sounding slightly familiar, some of the songs are quite beautiful and Barbour, with his imposing presence and spectacular, booming voice that could fill a stadium, brings to life such songs as “Human Nature,” which he sings with Pete. Barbour, with his highly trained vocal instrument also sings “I Surrender,” a deeply emotional love song he delivers sotto voce, and the wrenching “Why Don’t You Hear Me,” which he sings to Molly.  All show stoppers.

The four talented Tarot ladies, Melody Butiu, Anise E. Ritchie, (fabulous voice) Leslie Stevens, and Alet Taylor, dressed exquisitely in period costumes by Christina Haatainen Jones, as is the rest of the cast, were not served well as the “Greek Chorus” as they did not add much to the action and were made to look awkward by the rather pedestrian, unoriginal choreography of Kay Cole. 

Under the solid musical direction of Gerald Sternbach, the excellent band could be seen through an ornate picture frame above the stage and supported the performers and set changes very effectively.

Director Cates has created a theatrically compelling spectacle and under his direction, the pacing is energetic and moves swiftly, never offering a dull moment. 

The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Avenue, Westwood, CA 90024, Run:  Tuesday-Sunday Thru, May 23, 2010, Tickets:  310.208.5454

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