After the opening music draws you in, the fortune teller, Zeena ( Mary Gordon Murray), welcomes you to the world of cons, freaks and fakes. The first act doesn’t go quite deep enough and seems a bit one-note. However, an undeniable highlight is the ballad, “I Surrender,” a terrific song that could easily be picked up as a single by a country/pop artist.
Here it is sung by Stan the Con Artist ( James Barbour), whose rich, resonant baritone is nothing less than awesome. Sarah Glendening plays the electric-chair lady, Molly, and is Stan’s love interest. She also has a powerful, melodic voice, ably demonstrated when she sings, “Lucky Heart.”
Zeena’s husband, Pete, is the Geek – a shadowy figure shown through a back-lit curtain that eats live chickens, and is well played by Larry Cedar. His character provides some comic relief, but is killed off, soon after we meet him. He reappears as a spirit (without any special effects) in the second act, to play against Stan’s guilty conscience.
Fortunately, in the second act, the whole show gains energy and momentum. Now, we see an Elmer Gantry-like world, where the Carny Con Artist has become a Religious Con Artist, assisted by his alluring wife, Molly.
Tired of the religious come-on and deception, she refuses to continue the con and wants out. Enter a female psychiatrist, played by the same actress as Zeena (Murray) whose shrink is a fun character. Her songs perk up the dark tone set by the evangelist’s machinations, including using trickery to take an old widow’s home away.
Travis Leland is a rotund delight in dual roles as the Carny owner, Clem, and later as Ezra Grimble, a man who asks the evangelist to conjure up his first girlfriend. The entire cast is excellent, with an ensemble of tarot ladies who sing and dance along the way.
If you are into Brechtian tones and an old-fashioned story, the musical “Nightmare Alley” fits the bill. It is based on the William Lindsay Gresham novel of the same name. Book, music and lyrics were written by Jonathan Brielle, with direction by Gilbert Cates. It plays until May 23rd.
The remainder of the Geffen Playhouse season promises to be more contemporary, comedic and intellectual with the following offerings:
Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron’s “Love, Loss and What I Wore” an intimate collection of stories, is coming to the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, beginning previews on May 11th. It’s a series of vignettes, based on the best-selling book by Ilene Beckerman, along with personal stories and remembrances of the Ephrons and their friends. It will feature a cast of five rotating actresses - Carol Kane, Tracee Ellis Ross, Rita Wilson, Caroline Aaron and Natasha Lyonne.
On June 27th, Tony Award Winner, Emmy Award Winner and Oscar Nominee Laurence Fishburne transforms into Thurgood Marshall to tell the triumphant story of how a boy from the backstreets of Baltimore changed history.
“Thurgood” is the award-winning production that, in an extended monologue, tells how Thurgood Marshall’s path took him from arguing the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, to becoming the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. His tenacious advocacy broke open the civil rights movement and paved the way for young African-American leaders of the future.
Written by George Stevens Jr and directed by Leonard Foglia, “Thurgood” will play at the Geffen from June 27 to August 8, 2010, with an opening night of July 7.
Geffen Playhouse and Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater
10886 Le Conte Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90024