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Lancaster Opera House takes valiant stab at 'Roar of the Greasepaint'

Some stories seem inextricable from the eras in which they were written.

The cast and creative team of the Lancaster Opera House's production of "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd" did their best to thrust this fusty period piece into the present. But despite its clever contemporary framing and fine performances, the anachronistic tone and heavy-handed message of the show proves too much for these talented folks to overcome.

The show, directed by Merete Muenster, is a deeply belabored metaphor for capitalism operating under the guise of a chipper British musical. It features two archetypical characters, the aristocratic Sir (Stan Klimecko) and working-class Cocky (David Bondrow), locked in a kind of frustrated dance choreographed as if by Karl Marx.

This is a fascinating show well worth exploring not only for its clever dialogue and songwriting but for its highly unusual, almost Beckettian construction.

It eschews the classic musical tropes, instead thrusting its characters into a kind of abstract landscape and giving them strange tasks to complete. Once in a while, new archetypes wander into this concentrated world -- a woman, a black man, a bully in drag -- so that we can learn some new, heavy-handed lesson about the cruel and creative machinations of modern capitalism.

In a laudable attempt to bring the play into modern focus, the show features periodic interruptions from a silent film directed by J. Michael Landis in which Bondrow plays a contemporary businessman down on his luck. The notion is to demonstrate to audiences why the struggles Cocky faces, as a downtrodden member of the proletariat, remain relevant today. The film is well made and nicely acted by Bondrow, but the musical's authors, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, have already riveted their point so heavily home that the piece hardly benefits from this attempt at contemporary reinforcement.

If you can get beyond the museum-piece quality of the production, there's much to enjoy. In addition to the memorable tunes from the show ("Who Can I Turn To?", "Feeling Good," "The Joker"), it features the sort of quasi-vaudevillian dialogue and physical shtick that fans of classic theater will love.

This is especially true with Klimecko's character, an unapologetic aristocrat given to dispensing unrequested knowledge and grandiose declarations such as, "By the sacred whorehouses of Marrakech!"

Klimecko is marvelous in the role, clearly reveling in his character's hypocrisy and delivering it all with an engaging voice and manner. Bondrow, a talented musical theater performer with a special gift for physical comedy, is slightly under-equipped vocally for the challenging role of Cocky. Nonetheless, he offers moving renditions of "Who Can I Turn To" and "The Joker" and plenty of well-executed bits of physical comedy.

Bondrow and Klimecko are aided by a fine ensemble, featuring engaging performances from Meghan Cobham, Heather Reed, Valerie Stevens, Emily Yancey, Gary Andrews-Stieglitz, Stevie Jackson and, especially, Lorenzo Shawn Parnell, who delivers a fine performance of the beloved and much-covered song "Feeling Good."

Fran Landis' musical direction and band is on point, a marked improvement from her ensemble's performance for the Opera House's production of "South Pacific" in November.

Much credit should go to the Opera House, Muenter and the entire creative team and cast of this show for daring to produce this fascinating piece, so strangely cloistered in its period. Their heartfelt work will be rewarding and worthwhile for connoisseurs of the form, but is unlikely to resonate with a broader audience.

Theater Review

"The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd"

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Through April 22 in the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave. Tickets are $10 to $30. Call 683-1776 or visit lancopera.org.

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