Last night Angie and I took in a new musical at The Geffen theatre in Westwood called Nightmare Alley with one of my closest friends in the lead, James Barbour. It's a dark, cynical piece about a carnival worker who learns the game of conning an audience and eventually uses these skills to open his own church and scam his congregation out of their money. On the way he falls in love, accidentally kills another man and finally becomes a hopeless alcoholic. It's based on an old Tyrone Power film from the 1930s of the same name. The script has a lot of possibilities, most realized, some not.
First, let me say I have never been to The Geffen before last night. It very well may be the most beautiful 400 seat theatre I have ever seen. The lobby and courtyard alone are eye popping. The set and lighting design for the piece are really quite nice, managing to be both sparse and arresting at the same time.
The show, not surprisingly, reminded me of a couple of other shows written in the same style: Carnival, Carousel, Chicago, even Edwin Drood. Some of the music soars and some remains, purposely, dark and narrative. I didn't leave the theatre humming any tunes but I'm fairly sure the composer didn't want me to, either. That's the way it was with Sondheim's Bounce, which I watched at The Goodman some years back. One gets the idea the music is complicated. Although there is a very sweet ballad in the first act called I Surrender.
In any event, the play remains distant. Not engaging, really. And again, this is probably the whole point. The emotional distance is not an accident, it's what the creators want.
Halfway through the second act I whispered to Angie, "I know what's wrong." Jim's character, Stan Carlyle, takes a series of mighty emotional blows in the second act and eventually falls into the pits of despair and suffering. The point being he is reaping his just rewards. But no one really cares too much because the character has been an anti-hero the entire time. And that's what's wrong.
I told Jim afterwards that I thought the whole show could be turned around with the addition of a single monologue when the love interest is introduced. A monologue showing Stan's vulnerable side, his tender side, and explaining why he is the way he is. One can't really fall from grace unless one has grace to being with.
But that's all quibbling. Jimmy Barbour is the single most powerful musical theatre actor I have ever had the pleasure to watch. He is at the peak of his powers as a performer. Vocally he is downright shocking at times. There are three or four times during the evening he is called upon to really wail. He wails. I have never heard him in better voice. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone in better voice.
In addition to his remarkable prowess as a singer, Jim is a fine, fine actor in this style. He is angry and sharp and plays this kind of writing with tremendous clarity. Makes me really wish I had seen his Billy in Carousel on Broadway.
As I mentioned, the piece really has only one "traditional" musical theatre ballad in it called "I Surrender." It is touching and heartbreaking. And I'm just guessing here, but I think it's a two octave song. Probably G to G. Jim sings it as flawlessly as I can imagine.
I don't know if they'll do any reworking during the run. It's a fairly tight show as it stands. But I honestly believe the added monologue in the first act would make it soar. We'd LIKE this guy. And if not that, we'd at least understand where he's coming from. Again, it wouldn't have to be much, just an added half-page monologue that humanizes the character. Consequently when he reaches the end game, we empathize with him. His fate in the end is quite horrifying. It would be only more so if we really, really understood the guy. His conversion back to "honest guy" is too little, too late. And the advent of alcoholism in his life is foreshadowed with one or two lines from another character. I think a running acknowledgment from Stan himself would help clarify that. One doesn't become an abusive drinker overnight and it is usually hereditary anyway. In other words, if we hear the train coming it is far more sinister when it finally runs over someone.
But that's the playwright in me talking.
The place was packed last night. It's over near UCLA so it's quite a trek for Angie and I. Angie is good friends with the Managing Director over there so we stood and talked with him for awhile. Jim came out for the reception afterwards and posed for about a hundred pictures with people. But he's like I am and I know that's a chore for him. But he was really gracious about it and stood patiently as the flash bulbs snapped away.
Jim, incidentally, is my Best Man at our upcoming wedding. We've been best friends since 1989 when he played Lancelot to my Arthur in Camelot. We have been through a lot together, to say the least.
So Nightmare Alley, gentle readers. I think it plays through most of May. Eight shows a week at The Geffen.
And I think if Jim doesn't get an Ovation nomination for this, I'd be really surprised. He dominates in a very fine cast of actors. The eye finds him in whatever scene he's doing and is reluctant to turn elsewhere.
I was very, very proud of my friend last night. And all over again I realized why he is a star. He's a star because he happens to be very, very good at what he does.
See you tomorrow.