The Women of Brewster Place and Nightmare Alley – Los Angeles Musical Theater
TWO MUSICALS: THE CELEBRATION’S WOMEN AND THE GEFFEN’S
by Harvey Perr
published May 2, 2010
The Women of Brewster Place
now playing in Los Angeles at the Celebration Theatre
through June 6
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.
First 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.
It 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.
Michael 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.
If 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.
If 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
Jonathan 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