Also see Sharon's review of See What I Wanna See
The book by Jonathan Brielle (adapted from William Lindsay Gresham's novel) follows the members of a carnival sideshow in the 1930s as they are joined by a con man/drifter named Stan. Stan takes an interest in learning the tools of the mind-reading trade from the carnival's husband-and-wife tarot reading team, and also takes an interest in the lovely young Molly, who has an act in which she fakes getting jolted in the electric chair. And, faster than you can flash up a sign that says "three months later," Stan is a solid part of the carnivalhaving greatly improved the quality of the show, won an established relationship with Molly, and well-learned all of the mind-reading tricks the tarot team taught him.
The problem is, we just don't care. James Barbour brings his considerable vocal talents to the role of Stan, but has no real character to speak of. When he first appears, is he trying to con the carnival? Has he just been dealt a rotten hand by life and is trying to make good? We don't know; the show never bothers to establish him. Molly is introduced as an incurable optimist, but that's not a lot for Sarah Glendening (who also has a terrific voice) to hang her character-defining hat on. (What is it about Stan that attracts her? And when the second act opens with her starting to pull away from him, how did she get to that point? Was she initially happy with the way things were going and then changed her mind?) After an opening number which establishes the sideshow itself, we get a cute little song from the husband and wife mind-readers entitled "I Get By," which establishes the husband, Pete, as a happy-go-lucky guy who doesn't mind that he and his wife have fallen onto hard times. It's a weird place for the numberwe've just been introduced to Stan as the protagonist; having the focus of the show shift to a subsidiary pair seems to stop any momentum the show was establishing. Instead of the expected "I want" number from Stan, we get what is basically an "I don't want" number from Pete. But it does, at least, tell us who Pete is, establishing him as a rather minor character who is the only one we actually know a bit about and can feel something for. The result is pretty devastating. By the time Stan has his big second-act number, "Nobody Home," Barbour tries his best to instill the song with emotion, but it doesn't land because the emotion hasn't been earned.
Brielle also wrote the music and lyrics, and here, too, there's nothing particularly noteworthy. The tunes sound like generic pop, with the occasional vague hint of a carnival rhythm. The lyrics are largely pedestrian, with lines like, "When I hear your voice, I have no choice," and "I'm so guarded, not cold-hearted." Rhyming "blarney" with "carny" is about as creative as it gets, andwith an uninteresting bookthat simply isn't enough to keep us involved.
The visuals on this show, however, nearly are. When the songs weren't holding my interest, I'd find my eye wandering over the faded red and white drapery of the carnival tent (John Arnone's set design) and the way Daniel Ionazzi lit it. The colors come off as old and faded, with ominous shadows in which something evil may be lurking. It's the best part of the evening.
One other comment, though. Despite the delicious set and lighting design, there's a cheapness about this show that makes one worry for the Geffen's financial future. The chorus is comprised only of four "Tarot Ladies," who all have one basic costume they wear throughout the show, with additional pieces or overlays as needed. A chorus of only four looks a bit thin, and making them Tarot Ladies when you have a whole ten-act sideshow to choose from seems like a cop-out. There's an opportunity here for a chorus comprised of the entire freak show, decked out in all of its grotesque glory, and the show just wastes it.
Nightmare Alley runs at the Geffen Playhouse through May 23, 2010. For tickets and information, see www.geffenplayhouse.com.
The Geffen Playhouse – Gilbert Cates, Producing Director; Randall Arney, Artistic Director, Ken Novice, Managing Director – presents Nightmare Alley. Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Brielle, Based on the William Lindsay Gresham novel of the same name. Set Design John Arnone; Costume Design Christina Haatainen Jones; Lighting Design Daniel Ionazzi; Sound Design Brian Hsieh; Choreography Kay Cole; Orchestration by Irwin Fisch; Musical Direction Gerald Sternbach; Production Stage Manager Mary Michele Miner; Assistant Stage Manager Jennifer Brienen; Casting Director Phyllis Schuringa; Dramaturg Amy Levinson. Directed by Gilbert Cates.