REVIEW by Willard Manus

George Orwell's barnyard fable about the God that failed, communism, was turned into a musical back in 1984 (appropriately) by Peter Hall, Richard Peaslee (music) and Adrian Mitchell (lyrics) for Britain's National Theatre. Now Theatricum Botanicum has mounted an American version of the show, one which is a bit ragged in spots (owing to its mixed amateur & professional cast), but can still be recommended nonetheless. The lead performers, notably Steve Matt as The Old Major, Jim LeFebvre as Napoleon, Melora Marshall as Snowball, Melissa Thatcher as Muriel, Tom Allard as Boxer, and Earnestine Phillips as Clover, acquit themselves well, despite the handicap of having to wear masks while acting and singing. Actually, the show's masks and costumes are of such a high order that they will undoubtedly win critical prizes at year's end.

ANIMAL FARM depicts what happens to the animals (standing for the workers) who rebel against capitalism (embodied by the farmer, Mr Jones) and try to form a democratic society (animalism). The workers are successful at first and enjoy a brief utopia, until human nature (the thirst for power and control) takes over. Stalin (Napoleon) triumphs in his struggle with Lenin (Old Major) and Trotsky (Snowball), proceeding to become a tyrannical dictator who brooks no dissent or opposition. Animalism is crushed, the workers become exploited and downtrodden again, and Napoleon and his lackeys (priests, poets and bureaucrats) rule with an iron fist, just the way Mr Jones did. In fact, Orwell/Hall make the point that in this respect communism and capitalism resemble each other.

The music and lyrics are first-rate: simple but sardonic and witty. Ellen Geer's direction of ANIMAL FARM'S large cast is admirable and she has coaxed spirited performances out of her actors, who prance and dance, whinny and cluck, bleat and bellow with much gusto and realism, helped by Theatricum Botanicum's rustic setting.

Through September 29 at Theatricum Botanicum, 14l9 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. For tickets and scheduling information (also playing in rep are The Madwoman of Chaillot, The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night's Dream), call (310) 455-3723.