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The Women of Brewster Place and Nightmare Alley – Los Angeles Musical Theater Reviews

 

TWO MUSICALS:  THE CELEBRATION’S WOMEN AND THE GEFFEN’S NIGHTMARE

 

Theater Review

by Harvey Perr 

published May 2, 2010 

 

picture - Women of Brewster Place graphicThe Women of Brewster Place

now playing in Los Angeles at the Celebration Theatre 

through June 6

 

and

 

picture - Nightmare Alley graphicNightmare Alley

now playing in Los Angeles at the Geffen Theater

through May 23 

 

How thrilling it is to see a small space – and they don’t come much smaller than the Celebration Theatre – transformed into an opera house. By the time The Women Of Brewster Place sings its final notes, one fully knows that one has experienced a work of serious musical art, which, despite imperfections, is writ large by the size of the talents involved and by how much its ambition is matched by its realization.

 

Picture – The Women of Brewster Place – Celebration Theatre, Los AngelesFirst of all, the short stories by Gloria Naylor couldn’t have been easy to shoe-horn into a seamless evening, and some of the problems have not been entirely solved, but Tim Acito, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, clearly knows what he wanted, and, in telling the contrasting stories of Maddie and Etta Mae, who represent the way one generation handled its battle with life, and Lorraine and Tee, the tragic lesbians who bring the women into our own century, he has come close to creating a modern fable that is rooted in the darkest reality. He doesn’t introduce Lorraine and Tee into the proceedings until the second act, which seems a bit of a miscalculation, because it is through them that the work builds to its profound and powerful conclusion. But they dominate the second act in remarkable ways; it is just that they overshadow the stories of Kiswana and Cora Lee, who weave in and out of the first act without dominating it. The other women, Sophie and Mavis, are given even shorter shrift, and it can’t be said that using them as comic stereotypes is a particularly strong directorial choice. But, together, they form a solid and formidable group of women. One is moved and excited by the first act and most assuredly by “This Ain’t A Prayer,” the song that brings it to a heart-breaking close. But one leaves at intermission, somewhat unclear about where it is going. And then Lorraine steps onto the stage as an insecure but resourceful teacher with a song called “Smile,” which rapturously grasps the tension behind a smile and, from that moment on, the show cooks.

 

Picture – The Women of Brewster Place – Celebration Theatre, Los AngelesIt is primarily because Acito is a most gifted composer; it is in his music, in its counterpoint and its intelligence and its rhythmic complexity, that his characters come most fully to life and their dramas reach out to us. And the emotional richness of the lyrics adds dimension to the characterizations. And Acito is exceptionally well-served by his cast. Christine Horn is a revelation as Lorraine. And, as her partner Tee, Erica Ash delivers a series of behavior patterns that, taken together, show us a woman in genuine turmoil.  Their duet, “How I Hate It When the World Gets Into You,” is a little bit of musical heaven. And Kim Yarbrough as the seemingly non-committal Maddie seems to plant her feet on the ground – first with faltering steps, then with determined rootedness – that deepens with feeling as the play moves forward. Their voices, as well as the voices of the entire cast, make us sit up and listen to every resplendent note of Acito’s score. And, finally, it is in its plea for understanding that it reaches genuine stature. And even its weaknesses cannot destroy the passion that informs so much of it.

 

Picture – The Women of Brewster Place – Celebration Theatre, Los AngelesMichael Matthews has directed simply but forcefully; he seems to know how to keep out of the way, letting Acito's work be the drawing force. Ameenah Kaplan’s choreography is equally simple which is its virtue as well. A memorable world has been created in The Women Of Brewster Place. A little stronger work on the book could turn it into something even more fascinating than it already is.

 

Picture – Nightmare Alley – Geffen – photo by Michael LamontIf only Nightmare Alley, at the Geffen Playhouse, showed similar promise. The potential was certainly there. The novel, a brutal look at carnival life and its seedy denizens by William Lindsay Gresham, introduced the word “geek” into our language and our consciousness. And the film that was made of it, with Tyrone Power and the great Joan Blondell, was, despite a conventionally happy ending, as blistering and harrowing as any film that emerged from a major studio in the late 40s. In 2010, it would seem that we were ready – nay, thirsty – for a full frontal display of its hard-edged creepiness.

 

Picture – Nightmare Alley – Geffen – photo by Michael LamontIf Gilbert Cates, who directed, had the courage of his convictions, he could have turned the theater into a carnival, thrusting us and shoving our noses into its world of strange sounds and images. That some critics thought he did just that says as much about our critical timidity as it does about the theater’s. But, of course, as it turns out, the musical version itself doesn’t really support that approach. From the outset, it keeps us at a distance, softens the outlines of the story, until it has virtually no story to tell. And it never evokes the Dust Bowl of the Depression Era in which it takes place. The music contains a series of Cabaret-like arrangements in search of a score. Its lyrics are banal and predictable. And, in the second act, where it might have picked up steam, it added a plot reminiscent of Elmer Gantry, which made no sense at all and stopped the action dead in its tracks. And when the geek goes about his ugly business and it gets a guffaw rather than a shriek of horror, well, then, where can we possibly go from there?

 

Picture – Nightmare Alley – Geffen – photo by Michael LamontJonathan Brielle, who is responsible for the book, music and lyrics, could have taken a few lessons from Tim Acito; why turn Nightmare Alley into a musical and drain it of its passion, its power, its cheap horrors and its recognizable humanity in the midst of its cheap horrors?

 

Nightmare Alley has one great asset. James Barbour could have been, in a work that lived up to its promise, a really great Stan; he has the heft, the charm, even a casual kind of sleaziness and, above all, he has an extraordinary voice. When he sings “I Surrender,” an otherwise forgettable ballad, for one brief exhilarating moment, he almost makes us believe we are unmistakably in the theater. The moment passes.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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