The Roar of The Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd is a sui generis 1965 Broadway musical by the team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. They collaborated on the music, lyrics and book, and, to top it off, Newley was also the star on Broadway: I am pretty sure no other musical checks all those boxes.
It is thought of as a British musical, but Greasepaint had been a surprise flop in England, never making it to the London West End despite the fact that Bricusse and Newley (or “Brickman and Newburg” as they called themselves) were coming off their huge 1962 hit Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, which featured songs like “Gonna Build A Mountain” and “What Kind of Fool Am I?”
Though that show had starred Newley, Greasepaint was originally placed in the hands of British Music Hall star Norman Wisdom, who was sort of Newley-Lite. After it unexpectedly crashed and burned on the road to the West End, David Merrick shrewdly brought TROTGTSOTC to the states, beefing up the cast wattage by requiring Newley to take over as the star and casting old “Captain Hook” himself, Cyril Ritchard, as Newley’s onstage foil. Merrick sent Newley and Ritchard on a national tour, then finally brought Greasepaint to Broadway, where it was a modest success and garnered many Tony nominations.
The cast album was a best seller, and no wonder, for the show has one of the strongest scores of all Sixties musicals. Six of the songs became standards: “On a Wonderful Day Like Today,” “Where Would You Be Without Me?”, “The Joker,” “Who Can I Turn To,” “Nothing Can Stop Me Now,” and most of all, “Feelin’ Good.” The rest of the songs are excellent too.
No doubt about it, the music is the best thing about The Roar of The Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, and would justify producing it if there were no story or dialogue at all. The drawback is that TROTGTSOTC is virtually a two-man show, and “Cocky,” Newley’s role, requires a big vocal range, big presence and big musical comedy talent of the sort that is rare even among the Actors Equity ranks.
The welcome news about the current production by the Compass Rose Theater in Annapolis (running through June 5) is that it not only has a singer/actor/comic up to challenge of Cocky, it has excellent performers in all the roles, especially when they are singing.
As Cocky, Piers Portfolio—now there’s a name!—has the classically trained vocal chops to hit the notes that Newley’s acrobatic voice shook to death, without Newley’s impressive if annoying stylistic excesses. He’s also limber, funny and lovable. In the Cyril Ritchard role, Sir, Elliott Bales seems like a cross between Zero Mostel and The Hollywood Squares’ Peter Marshall. He has a strong voice and deft phrasing (though on this night, at least, sang a lot of notes that aren’t in the score), and is both physically imposing and mobile, a felicitous combination.
As the Kid, Sir’s protégé, Tommy Malek did fine in a role written for an abrasive, androgynous young woman; don’t ask me why it wasn’t cast as written, but okay. Singing the show-stopping “Feelin’Good” and knocking it out of the park was Nygel Robinson. As “The Girl,” normally a thankless role, Anna DeBlasio is both lovely enough to be a plausible “dream girl” and has a rich, expressive singing voice. The under-staffed chorus of “urchins” consisted of three teenage girls, two of which, at least, were fun to watch and listen to. The third seemed to have wondered in off the street. Maybe she is a real urchin.
If this were a production of a Maltby and Shire musical like Starting Here, Starting Now, the cast and its abundant musical abilities would be enough to mark the Compass Rose production an unqualified success. Unfortunately, what makes The Roar of The Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd both unique and uniquely difficult are its ambitious aspirations, or, if you prefer, pretentions of profundity. You want to cheer Bricusse and Newley for daring to write a musical comedy commenting on serious issues like class inequities, power, religion, poverty and racism, and boo them for not having the courage, or perhaps the skill, to pull it off. This is a messy show, a flawed show, and if a company is going to succeed with it, the problems cooked into the book have to be dealt with boldly. There is no margin for inattention and error. Yet at Compass Rose, there is plenty of both.
The book is a simultaneously heavy-handed and superficial political allegory, with an exploited working class dupe (Cocky) being forced to play “The Game” (of Life, naturally) against an upper class bully (Sir) who rigs the rules and always wins. That’s it, really. The songs arise out of various game crises, tactics and defeats for Cocky, while the cocky overlord Sir makes snide asides and gives ethically corrosive advice to the Kid, grooming him for privilege to come.
Since everything transpires in less than two hours of action (there is a 15 minute intermission), the dramatic conceits of the story feel hastily and inadequately set up. For example, Cocky meets his dream girl, falls head over heels in love with her, and has her seduced away by Sir, all in about ten minutes. Nevertheless, the two most intense songs in the show are prompted by these events. If the underlying drama in a musical isn’t compelling, then its songs might as well be part of a cabaret. Somehow the actor and the director have to make us believe that Cocky’s pain is real. The book doesn’t make it easy, but that is still their job.
Director Lucinda Merry-Browne either was defeated by the challenge, didn’t try to address it, or didn’t think it needed addressing. The first is understandable; the second would be negligent, and the third is just plain wrong. Because the drama was unconvincing and underplayed, the songs, though well-written and well-sung, fell flat. Even “Feeling Good,” sparked by an underdog unexpectedly winning the Game, had no dramatic impetus to justify its lyrical and melodic intensity. “The Foreigner” —in the original the character is called “The Negro,” and there is no reason to change it but timidity— didn’t seem especially jubilant or inspired when he won the Game, he just started singing. Why? What did he win? Why was it a big deal? The half-hearted game board, as rendered on the small stage, doesn’t suggest an objective or a prize, and after his presumably life-altering victory,, he just walked off the stage, not much happier than he entered it.
Yes, the allegory is clunky and hackneyed, but that’s the show, dammit. The performers have to commit to it. The characters have to seem like they believe in it, or the audience never will.
The entire production was muffled by tentative staging and moderated performing. Only energy and commitment can supply what the authors failed to provide. Those were exactly the commodities Anthony Newley could be counted on to deliver, whether his style was to your taste or not. Newley gave every atom of his being to each performance, acting as if every note, every moment, was the most important thing in the world to him, and ought to be for anyone watching. This show desperately needs that kind of commitment. Just delivering the songs and the jokes competently is pleasant enough, but it’s also a punt.
The shrugging interpretation also makes this Greasepaint vague, and leads to careless mistakes. Cocky sings a song about faith; as indicated in the script, he carries around various talismans—a rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe, a four leaf clover—suggesting that his belief in something—luck, destiny, God—keeps him playing the Game. When he is crushed and defeated at the end of the first act, Cocky despairingly sings “Who Can I Turn To When Nobody Needs Me?” because he is losing his faith, and is terrified. The last line is “Who can I turn to if you turn away?” He’s singing to God.
The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd
closes June 5, 2016
Details and Tickets
The stage directions says that Cocky leaves all of his talismans in a pile on the game board and walks away. But in this staging, there are no talismans to abandon, not in the earlier song about luck and not at the first act finale. The absence renders the song both ambiguous and meaningless, and squanders the drama the authors intended.
“Gee, what a nice song,” just isn’t enough, nor is it fair to the material.
(Further confounding things is that Sir, at one point, crosses himself. Huh? The show’s conceit is that religion exists to keep the lower classes “playing.” This is the kind of tone-deaf muff—there were many of them— that made me wonder if the production staff understood its own show.)
At the end of the show the antagonist’s roles have reversed, symbolized by Sir carrying the pair’s baggage. But before they walk off into the sunset, Cocky relieves Sir of part of his burden, sharing the load, and showing us progress: they are finally equals. At least, that’s what the script suggests. In this production, we never see Cocky weighed down by Sir’s baggage at the beginning of the show, so there was no way to express the message of the ending. Instead, the characters just lined up for the curtain call as they were singing the finale. Again, a punt.
This kind of throw-away transition would be tolerable in a musical revue, but not in a book show purporting to explicate the injustices of capitalist society. I doubt that “Brickman and Newburg” would have approved.
If these were conscious artistic choices, even wrongheaded ones, that would be defensible. I am inclined to conclude that they are more likely the result of carelessness, because there are so many other glaring mistakes and botches that shouldn’t occur in a professional production.
For example, Sir uses a whistle to signal rule infractions when Cocky plays the game, but the whistle either didn’t work, or Elliott Bales doesn’t know how to blow one. Inexcusable. How hard is it to make sure a whistle works? Sir is supposed to be dressed nattily, showing his wealth and status, but on the opening Saturday performance, there was a noticeable tear in the seam of one sleeve of his suit jacket. This is unacceptable at any theatrical level, including high school. If the tear suddenly appeared as the performance was beginning, why wasn’t it patched during intermission?
These are the kinds of needless scars on a production that suggest that nobody’s paying attention to details.
Most unforgivable of all was the muddy and inept piano accompaniment. I would regard it as barely adequate for a rehearsal. The problem was especially exposed during the Greasepaint overture, which is normally exhilarating with an orchestra. Reducing the instrumentation to a single grand piano arguably renders the overture worthless, but forcing the audience to sit there while a pianist who isn’t professional caliber grimly hacks through it is madness.
This is the second straight musical I have watched where the director’s solution to a badly played overture is to have the chorus, in this case the two/thirds competent trio of “urchins,” come out before the show starts and aimlessly sort-of dance and mug. (They did it again during the mercifully shorter entre-act.) Look, either an overture is well enough rendered to make it worth listening to, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, cut it.
I’m dwelling on the production’s inadequacies in part out of frustration, for with the glaring exception of the pianist, all the essential components of an outstanding Greasepaint were in evidence. Had they been assembled with more boldness, commitment, attention to detail and professionalism, one of the most original and under-produced Broadway musicals might have risen close to the heights its creators envisioned.
That it does not at Compass Rose is an opportunity lost, but never mind: this production of The Roar of The Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd is worth hearing, and that means that it’s still worth seeing.
The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd . Music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley . Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne . Featuring Elliott Bales, Piers Portfolio, Tommy Malek, Anna Deblasio, Nygel Robinson, Sarah Grace Clifton, Sarah Kathryn Makl and Charlize Lefler . Choreographer: Elizabeth Spilsbury . Music Director: Anita O’Connor . Lighting Designer: Kathryn Monicure . Costume Designer: Renee Vergauwen . Props: Joann and Mike Gidos . Accompanist: Jimothy Rogers . Accompanist: Jimothy Rogers . Stage Manager: Mary Ruth Cowgill . Produced by Compass Rose Theater . Reviewed by Jack Marshall.