It would be all too easy to say that sitting through the new musical Nightmare Alley, currently at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, feels like a nightmare. But nightmares at least grip your imagination. Nightmare Alley, on the other hand, is bad in a depressingly pedestrian way.
The premise has at least a small spark of promise. Adapted by writer-composer-lyricist Jonathan Brielle from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 pulp novel of the same name, Alley follows a shady con man (James Barbour) who worms his way into a Depression-era carnival show after a psychic (Mary Gordon Murray) deduces that he?s the son of a preacher. (Gresham’s book also inspired a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power as the con artist.) Instead of a macabre tour through the underbelly of carny life, however, we get bland, ragtime-ish songs that often don?t quite fit together, facile lyrics that rarely forward the story, and oddly well-scrubbed costumes and set design that appear to drift into the 1940s and 1950s. (The psychic even looks like a SoCal hippie circa 1974.)
Director Gil Cates takes little advantage of the thrust stage built into the Geffen for the show. At times it’s not entirely clear where scenes are supposed to be taking place; worse, he stages a major Act One plot point so vaguely that it leads to confusion. The able cast does what it can with the material, delivering the most zip in a tent-show revival scene that opens the second act; but only Larry Cedar (HBO’s Deadwood), as a washed-up, alcoholic mind-reader, looks like he?s having any real fun. It all adds up to an ungainly pastiche of Cabaret, The Music Man, Little Shop of Horrors, and the inert, short-lived HBO series Carnivale. At least none of those shows was saddled with a cheesy Disney-style love ballad like ”I Surrender,” in which our hero awkwardly proclaims, ”I surrender when I look into your eyes/ I surrender, to those most blue, bluest skies.” C-
(Tickets: www.Ticketmaster.com or 310-208-5454)