Wish upon a wishbone! Pluck a four-leaf clover! That you’ll snag tickets and understanding before this production run is over. Closing out the 2015/2016 season at Compass Rose Theater, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd takes to the stage with its beautiful music and curious political statement that burbles just beneath the surface of the overarching allegory of the tale in total. Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne with Musical Direction by Anita O’Connor, the show brings lively musical numbers together against potent caricature stereotypes that articulate a broad sweeping statement about political classicism in America.
Originally designed as a commentary on the British status quo between the upper and lower classes, this Bricusse and Newley musical has a loosely fitted plot structure that feeds the allegorical notion of its existence rather than tells a story or narrative. This construct may make the actions difficult to follow throughout the performance but Director Lucinda Merry-Browne and Musical Director Anita O’Connor frame the production in such a manner that key points stick and emotional connections are delivered soundly through radiant vocal talent. Taking place in “anywhere” USA, the political relevance of the show is not understated, particularly when it comes to Merry-Browne’s infusion of modern zingers regarding the current presidential race. These make for some of the most amusing moments in the production, but also some of the most profound.
While the musical itself floats as an enormous theatrical metaphor, there is much to be gained from exploring the insights it presents. Merry-Browne’s topical political inclusion creates an accessible framework for the show’s original examination of the British class system and status quo to be transposed into a more modern and relevant series of reflections on the current political climate. The needle-skipping loop-scratch moments where these “figures”— with Sir representing the monetarily enhanced and Cocky the average American— fall poignantly onto issues that have continued to be points of contention in our country’s brief history since its inception. Cocky’s “…your lives don’t matter…” moment is one of the most striking in the production.
Despite the convoluted nature of the show, Merry-Browne does a formidable job of navigating the audience on a journey of political relevance. The intimate space of Compass Rose Theater presents unique challenges to the overall blocking of the performance, but nothing that is not overcome in the grander scheme of things. Layering the “playground effect” which mirrors the notion that all of life is a game on top of the already labyrinthine plot structure does call into question whether or not less would be more in this case, though it simultaneously creates moments of pure spectacle for aesthetic enjoyment like when the urchins take to swinging about on the long draped rope swing.
The Urchin ensemble (Sarah Grace Clifton, Sarah Kathryn Makl, and Charlize Lefler) sits with a certain unbalance in the bigger picture of the production’s intention. While on the one hand it’s easy to see Merry-Browne’s attempt to use youth performers to further reflect the childish nature of the “game” and to show how the ‘everyman’ is naïve like a child when it comes to politics, classism, and the status quo, it is just as easy to argue that adult performers could have been used in their stead. With this production it appears the primary purpose of the urchin chorus is to showcase Choreographer Elizabeth Spilsbury’s work, which is not as succinctly executed as it could be and relies heavily on presentational gestures. To Spilsbury’s credit, however, the vaudeville-inspired routines that find themselves trotted out with Sir and Cocky are quite sharp and rather riveting as far as dance routines are concerned. The inclusion of youth performers does, however, speak to the theater’s overall mission of being a professional youth teaching institute.
Musical Director Anita O’Connor and live stage accompanist Jimothy Rogers bring their skilled ears and practiced knowledge to the production which involves keeping exacting pace with the live performers in the quaint space as well as balancing the vocal harmonies against the volume of a live baby grand piano on the stage. Rogers, whose accompanist skills are exceptional, fits like an unseen character into the show, his smooth fingers working over the music of Bricusse and Newley with lively energy. O’Connor brings voices together in duet as well as group numbers, allowing the stronger vocal talents to resonate and carry the lyrics for a heartier rendition of numbers like “The Beautiful Land” and “That’s What it is To Be Young.”
The Girl (Anna Deblasio) is featured only momentarily in the production, largely as a statement about how women are abused by the misogyny of men. Deblasio has a dulcet sound that pairs well with cocky during “My First Love Song” and her reactions to both Sir and Cocky, both initially and upon her character’s return, are fully physically animated. The Foreigner (Nygel Robinson) arrives into the show for only one moment and one song but it is by far the most memorable and emotionally grounded number in the piece. “Feeling Good” is infused with earnest soul and Robinson fully embraces the resounding bliss of the number with a powerful vocal sustain and crystalline vocal clarity.
The Kid (Tommy Malek) is an extraneous function to the relationship dynamic of Cocky (Piers Portfolio) and Sir (Elliott Bales.) Malek is sprightly and teaming with a vigorous vim, which translates into a warmed energy perfect for leading numbers like “The Beautiful Land” and “That’s What it is To Be Young.” With a bold voice, he goes vocally toe to toe with both Portfolio and Bales, though seldom sings in numbers with them. Adding a somewhat cheeky energy to his comic spoken delivery, Malek keeps this disambiguated character feeling lively for every moment the character exists on stage, whether it is actively engaged in the happenings of the story or merely observing.
Bales delivers the character of Sir as a timeless aristocrat, looking, sounding, and existing as if he could belong to the 1920’s or the millennial 20’s and several decades in-between. Charged with varying emotional energies consistently throughout the performance, Bales finely toes the line of caricature when it comes to playing Sir, and does so with panache. “Look at That Face” is just one example of how Bales’ voice swells with confidence and pompous pride when it comes to being master of the game. “Where Would You Be Without Me?” allows for a showcase of Bales’ singing and dancing abilities.
Portfolio, as the semi-protagonistic character is primed with enthusiasm though it shifts from boisterous to emotionally weighted throughout the performance as his character’s narrative arc changes. “The Joker” is a striking number both emotionally and vocally because of Portfolio’s delivery but also thanks to Lighting Designer Kathryn Moncure who uses the perfect blend of shadow and color to create a daring pose with the actor up on the rail of the upper balcony frozen in a moment of suspended animation which captures multiple points of emotional articulation on the precipice of eruption in that pause. Heavy with solemnity, Portfolio delivers a heartfelt rendition of “Who Can I Turn To?” to close out the first act and carries this emotional consistency well into the second half of the show.
There are beautiful things to remember and ugly things to forget, all of which can be seen and heard on the stage of Compass Rose Theater with their production of The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd if you’re willing to see this musical from its sweet beginning through to the bitter end.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission
The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd plays through June 5, 2016 at Compass Rose Theater— 45 Spa Road in Annapolis, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 980-6662 or purchase them online.