Nightmare Alley



As a novel and then a 1947 movie (with Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell), NIGHTMARE ALLEY was an offbeat, dark melodrama which emphasized the weirdness of the carnie world with its sideshow freaks and geeks. In its present reincarnation as a musical, now in a world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, the story has been lightened and brightened, made more entertaining. A few of the freaks and geeks are on show, including a guy in a cage who bites the heads off live chickens. The film showed him in cannibalistic action; the musical hides him behind a screen.

The defanged version of NIGHTMARE ALLEY concentrates on the love affair between "human dynamo" Molly (Sarah Glendening) and Stan (James Barbour), the carnie scam artist who becomes a fake, though occasionally effective, spiritual healer. Barbour is a powerful singer with a commanding stage presence, Glendening is small and perky; together they make an unlikely couple (though the latter sure can belt out a song).

For all of his strength and bluster, Barbour is a flawed, guilty hero, secretly dogged by an accidental death he caused. It's hard to sympathize with him or, even more importantly, to get caught up in NIGHTMARE ALLEY'S story. It has neither urgency nor suspense, which makes it difficult to sit through the show's two-hour length.

Jonathan Brielle, who wrote book, music and lyrics, tries to make up for the lack of dramatic tension by filling the air with music: ten songs in act one, eight in act two. Some of the songs are sprightly, others are gripping (especially the big love song, "I Surrender") but most are on the serviceable, ordinary side.

Director Gil Cates works hard keep NIGHTMARE ALLEY moving and appealing and his eleven-person cast does yeoman work, particularly Larry Cedar, Michael McCarty and Mary Gordon Murray (in multiple roles). The four-woman chorus (Melody Butiu, Anise E. Ritchie, Leslie Stevens and Aley Taylor) sing and dance valiantly. John Arnone's set, which turns the theatre into a gaudily-lit carnie tent, and Gerald Sternbach's six-piece band make significant contributions as well.

The Geffen is to be commended for taking a chance on new, offbeat material. NIGHTMARE ALLEY might not be the most exciting musical out there, but it is a worthy and respectable piece of work. Let's hope the Geffen will continue to mount other original, homegrown productions like this one.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave, Westwood. 310-208-5454,