Nightmare Alley -- Theater Review

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Like it or not, anything called "Nightmare Alley" has to be compared to the the 1947 movie starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, which remains an essential film noir classic.

Although Jonathan Brielle does a neat job of compressing the action into two hours onstage, he fails to capitalize on the terrible implications of falling from grace into a hell beyond the reaches of spirituality or religion, and neither his lyrics nor music is memorable.

Using all his craft and experience, director Gil Gates has put together an awesome production that uses fabrics and visuals to stretch the Geffen Playhouse into a genuine carny environment. He also seems to get from each actor the maximum that they have to give. But adding chicken head-biting crunches to the geek sequences that bookend the evening is no substitute for the suggestion of crunching that made Power's and the audience's skin crawl with fear.

At times it seems as if the play is going to be entirely narrative, with flashbacks provided by Zeena (Mary Gordon Murray, whose warmth and authenticity holds the evening together). But finally the action begins with the entrance of Stan (James Barbour, in the Power role). His tall, dark and handsome presence and powerful singing initially dominate the stage, but his acting lacks the nuances of stupidity, fear and greed that -- in contrast with occasional flashes of stolid charm -- make his character so fascinating. Sarah Glendening holds her own as his love interest, with a lovely soprano and the kind of spunky energy often found in the Midwest, until the need to wraps things up pushes her aside toward the end.

As a further sign of the project's weakness, I don't think anyone originally intended for the character of Pete to steal the show. Perhaps Larry Cedar's toolkit of inventive, endearing bits of business and his ability to take on three roles, including an ancestor of Lily Tomlin's eccentric women and a gullible sheriff, changed the director's mind. Simply, whatever is happening in the story stops the moment Cedar steps onstage as he effortlessly rustles up laughter and dances the fool as if he were going to float off into space.

Christina Haatinen Jones' costumes are bold and arresting; those for the four women who make up the chorus are grim reminders of what the 1930s were in the sticks. Great work, too, from conductor Gerald Sternbach and the hard-working musicians in the pit.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through May 23)
Cast: James Barbour, Larry Cedar, Sarah Glendening, Michael McCarty, Mary Gordon Murray
Book, music and lyrics by: Jonathan Brielle
Based on the novel by: William Lindsay Gresham
Director: Gilbert Cates
Music director: Gerald Sternbach
Choreographer: Kay Cole
Set designer: John Arnone
Costume designer: Christina Haatinen Jones
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
Sound designer: Brian Hsieh
Casting director: Phyllis Schuringa
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