“You have looked at us for years as different from you that you may never see us really. You don’t understand because you think of us as second-class humans. We have been passive and accommodating through so many years of your insults and delays that you think the way things used to be is normal. When the good-natured, spiritual-singing boys and girls rise up against the white man and demand to be treated like he is, you are bewildered. All we want is what you want, no less and no more.”
– Shirley Chisolm, Unbought and Unbossed
Hidden gems are named so for a reason: it makes one feel as if they’ve been given a reward for what was otherwise an indifferent (or unpleasant) experience. Who knows what lead them to the experience in the first place, but the fact that at least one moment can linger with you for so long afterward almost makes the entire experience worth it. It’s the prize at the bottom of your cereal box.
Not many people remember the 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, but it’s safe to say you remember one particular song from it. The year after the show premiered, songstress Nina Simone recorded her own version of Act II’s biggest highlight, “Feeling Good,” and gave the world a big-band classic. So renowned is Simone’s version that everyone from Michael Bublé to George Michael has taken a stab at it, all trying (and failing) to replicate the tortured-but-victorious soul she injected into her record. Like Frank Sinatra with “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls, Simone’s solo take on the song has all-but erased the memory of the show from which it originated.
That’s not a fair comparison – people still perform Guys and Dolls from time to time. Not so much for Roar…. Given the current state of the world, it’s easy to see why Landmark Musical Theatre’s artistic director (Jonathan F. Rosen, who also directs this show) thought it’s story of class-struggle-via-board-game would appeal to a modern progressive audience. But the central paradox of this new production is that Rosen and his talented collaborators accidentally reveal how flawed a musical Greasepaint really is.
The rules of “The Game” are never fully explained, but its players are all too familiar. There’s the posh man known only as “Sir,” and his young ne’er-do-well companion Cocky. Cocky plays the game with the hopes of one day being as well-off as Sir. The problem is that every time Cocky seems to make it ahead, Sir changes the rules without warning, making Cocky have to start all over again.
As the stakes are raised and Cocky’s patience wears thin, even he begins to wonder if “the prize” is really worth all the effort.
The big problem at the center of Greasepaint is that Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley wrote a short story that they stretched interminably to feature length. Class struggle parables will hold relevance as long as there are classes to separate humanity. Had the playwrights simply written a one-act satire, it would probably be taught in classrooms all over the world. Instead, they pad out their short story by stuffing it full of songs the way a Scottish butcher fills a haggis.
It’s not that the songs are bad – quite the contrary, they’re all good – but not a single one actually advances the plot. With the exception of the opening number, each song tells the audience what was either painfully obvious or already explained through spoken dialogue. What’s worse, each one is a show-stopper in the worst way: the narrative literally stops just for a redundant song. Each one makes for fine audition material, but they don’t work together. It’s as if Bricusse and Newley were assigned to write a 50-page term paper, but didn’t have enough to say about the assigned topic, so they just used large font.
(I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out that this production seems to have added dialogue. I’m not very familiar with this show, but I doubt that a 1964 play would have included the terms “selfie,” “99%,” or the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted”.)
Fortunately, Landmark cast skilled performers to pull off an otherwise thin story. Before the show started, director Rosen came out to introduce the show from his “fledgling musical theatre company”. Indeed, the set in the photo above has a very “high school theatre” feel, but seeing as how that’s where many youngsters discover their love of theatre, that isn’t entirely a bad thing. If there’s one area where the low budget hurts the show, it’s the lack of microphones on the actors. Since the off-stage musicians (Brian Allan Hobbs and Lily Sevier) have amplifiers, the mic-free actors’ voices are often lost amid the sound of the music.
But they are good actors and singers. Unfortunately, there were no production stills on the website at the time of this review, but their headshots can be found there. Scott Ayers has the distinguished air of a polished performance veteran than serves Sir very well. Although the actor stammered through some of his lines, it didn’t take away from the overall impression. He spends most of his stage time going back-and-forth with Julian O’Byrne’s Cocky. The baby-faced actor provides a fine foil to Ayers’ heavy, but often finds himself the most in need of a microphone. There were quite a few songs in which his voice was completely drowned out. The “urchin” trio of Heather Steffen, Amanda Nguyen, and Dian Sitip Meechai seem to be having the most fun when their characters aren’t the central focus, as they’re able to be active without being distracting. One of the show’s biggest high points features Meechai doubling as “The Girl,” leading to a solo dance routine that could easily act as a demo reel for the trained contortionist.
Of course, the show’s biggest highlight comes from a character with only one scene. Juanita Harris is the one who makes the most of that one scene, as her character, “The Stranger”, is the one to put Cocky’s White privilege in perspective, and so she can sing the Nina Simone classic. Having the strongest pipes of the entire cast, Harris’s voice is the only one that’s never lost amongst the music. She thankfully doesn’t try to channel Simone too much, but she sings the song clearly aware of its legacy. Listening to her belt from her soul is practically worth the price of admission.
In addition to the cast, the production is served by some fine work behind the scenes. Deb Leamy’s choreography looks like a lot of fun to pull off (especially for the urchins), Rosen’s secondary work as the play’s lighting designer set the mood (even if the lone spotlight didn’t seem to register on stage), and Richard Gutierrez’s costumes give each character fine sense of individuality. Cocky’s Vaudevillian tramp ensemble and the stunning dance gowns worn by The Girl are particular stand-outs.
Fledgling though they may be, there is a genuine love of musical theatre to be found Landmark’s production. Not every show can have the budget of SHN. Hopefully, their next show will give them enough funding to allow for microphones to capture every lyric from their actors’ lips. And let’s also hope that the next show has enough narrative strength to sustain the talent of the performers.
The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd runs until the 27th of May at The EXIT Theatre.
For tickets and information, please visit the company’s official site here.