Reviewed by George Basler
The famous American playwright George F. Kaufman glumly observed that “satire is what closes Saturday night.”
Kaufman wasn’t talking about The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, but he could have been. The musical, which opened this past weekend at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center in Owego, is a collection of first-rate songs sabotaged by a pretentious, contrived plot that makes for a long evening.
The 1964 show — with book, music and lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse — was a follow-up to their 1962 hit, Stop the World — I Want to Get Off. The musical satirizes the English class system and came at a time when the system was being undermined by playwrights such as John Osborne (Look Back in Anger) and various pop music groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
While the show flopped in England, where it was first staged, it was a moderate success in the United States, where legendary producer David Merrick had the novel idea of touring the show nationally and recording a cast album before opening on Broadway. Tony Bennett’s hit version of one of the show’s main songs, “Who Can I Turn To?”, helped spur ticket sales for a modest run in New York.
But the songs, at least in the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players production, can’t salvage a heavy-handed book that lacks any narrative drive.
The action takes places in some kind of a post-apocalyptic world. The downtrodden Cocky (Micah Neiss) and the smug, pompous Sir (Shawn L. Yetter) play an endless game that, I suppose, represents the game of life. Of course Cocky never wins because Sir keeps changing the rules. The game is rigged: Get it? Newley and Bricusse beat the idea to death, and the conceit wears out its welcome after about 15 minutes.
Other characters in the musical are Sir’s assistant, The Kid (Bridgette Ernst), a thoroughly annoying character; The Girl (Kristina Jackson), also annoying; The African-American (Ken Snowden, who shows up to be insulted by both Cocky and Sir (wow, get that social message)); The Bully (Shane Smith), who just shows up; and eight young urchins who seem to have wandered in from the cast of Annie.
The book’s main weakness is that the characters are never more than cartoonish symbols for Newley and Bricusse’s ponderous social commentary. The two attempted to merge English music hall tradition with social satire and absurdist elements out of Samuel Beckett. They didn’t pull it off.
While the book is a drag, the songs are a different story. As previously stated, “Who Can I Turn To?” was a hit for Tony Bennett. “Feeling Good” has been covered by artists from Sammy Davis Jr. to Nina Simone. “The Joker” was recorded by Shirley Bassey. “On a Wonderful Day Like Today” is a standard, and so is “Look at That Face,” recorded by Barbra Streisand, among others.
The Ti-Ahwaga cast, directed by Keith Nichols and choreographed by Karen Thomas, does a competent job with the songs. Especially noteworthy is Neiss, who has a good singing voice and the ability to put emotion into a song. Unfortunately at the performance I attended, his singing was marred by a problem with the microphone or sound system that created intermittent static.
Also noteworthy were the urchins, evenly split between boys and girls, whose musical numbers are refreshingly entertaining. Nichols and Thomas did a good job directing them.
Mention should be made of Snowden who, according to the program, is making his acting debut as The African-American. He has good stage presence, although his voice isn’t strong enough to carry his big number, “Feeling Good.” Still, I’d like to see him in something else.
Yetter, as Sir, blusters and mugs his way through his performance but is never very funny. He does a good job with a reprise of “Who Can I Turn To?” that shows Sir’s vulnerability at the end of the show, but the character has been so unlikeable to that point that the emotion falls flat.
In the end, the Ti-Ahwaga production can’t cover up the flaws of The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd. The pacing seemed off, and the action dragged. The characters have little meaningful interaction with each other, although that can be blamed more on Newley and Bricusse than the folks at Ti-Ahwaga.
The show just wasn’t my cup of tea.
IF YOU GO: The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd will have performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through June 14. General admission tickets are $20: purchase online at tiahwaga.com, or call 687-2130. The Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center is located at 24 Delphine St., Owego.