|Urchins' ensemble. Front row: Aubrey McLain, Lily Henderson, William Ferguson.|
Back row: Kennedy Raphelt, Rylie Elizabeth Bartell, Orion Duncan, Sarah Felder
By Tina Arth
History tells us that The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd is an allegorical tale from the 1960s about the inequalities of the British class system. Despite evidence to the contrary, including my own memory of several of the songs, a part of me insists that this quirky little show was written in 2017 to shine the piercing light of absurd comedy on the current scene in Washington D.C. Co-authors Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley have captured with unerring prescience key themes in 2017 America, and I suspect that this rarely performed musical will see a renaissance in the coming months and years. HART Theatre should be proud to be leading the charge.
While the story is pretty much indescribable (you’ve really got to be there), some exposition may help. On a starkly minimalist set, two men (the aristocratic Sir and the subjugated Cocky) are playing the game of life (literally – there is a game board painted on the stage floor). The game is rigged to reflect a societal perversion of the golden rule - “he who has the gold makes the rules.” Eagerly supported by a group of ragtag urchins, Sir wins every game without ever lifting a finger. It’s always Cocky’s turn, and every move he makes is wrong. The pattern is disrupted only with the arrival of The Stranger (described in the original play as “The Negro”), a newcomer who functions outside of the rigid constructs of the game, makes up his own rules, declares himself the winner, and cheerfully wanders off. Sir, Cocky, and the rest are left to puzzle out how to respond to this revolutionary tear in their social fabric. The ambiguity of the show’s conclusion provides no easy answers, but at least opens the door for hope that today’s often-maligned social justice warriors may be tomorrow’s victors. All of this is delivered with a liberal dose of wit, really fun choreography, and some amazing songs including classics like “Who Can I Turn To” and “A Wonderful Day Like Today” that take on whole new meaning in the context of the show.
Fifteen year-old Lily Henderson does a fine job in her key role as Sir’s sidekick “The Kid” – both the scorekeeper and the narrator, she enthusiastically captures the paradox of the lower-class character working against her own interests. The rest of the urchins sparkle with their physical agility, and they provide a powerful vocal ensemble to back the show’s biggest numbers. Prince AV’s “The Stranger” is a real find, with the trained voice to absolutely nail one of the show’s biggest solos, “Feeling Good” (a standard long before anyone ever heard of Michael Buble). Kaitlynn Baugh is lovely and winningly naïve in her part of “My First Love Song,” but it is her silent despair when claimed as one of Sir’s many prizes that really catches the audience.
Finally there are the two leads – Stan Yeend (“Sir”) and James Grimes (“Cocky”). Both hit just the right notes for their characters, injecting their songs with both power and personality while avoiding either distracting British accents or cartoonish melodrama. Playing it straight serves to emphasize that, while the story may be an allegory, it’s just not that far off from contemporary reality. Yeend is literally larger than life, and he manages to convince us that he is really puzzled by Cocky’s petty discontents and rebellions – in Sir’s world, best expressed in “A Wonderful Day,” the status quo is just fine, and “it wasn’t by chance that we happened to be where we are.” Most of Grimes’ songs, despite some wide octave shifts, still fit neatly in the center of his vocal range, allowing him to give numbers like “Who Can I Turn To” a poignant dignity. I was equally impressed with Grimes’ acting – he moves from craven to eager, suspicious to optimistic, and despairing to hopeful with ease. The character’s sporadic limp, the result of a genuine injury, manages to give Cocky an extra dose of pain and pathos that works quite well, although one hopes that he’ll have recovered by the second week.
Three unseen, but not unsung heroes are musicians Ryan DeHaven, Glen Libonati, and Amy Katrina Bryan. Their flawless work proves once again that the basic keyboard, bass, and drums can deliver even the most challenging score in an intimate setting. Add in Sandy Libonati’s solid vocal direction, a top-notch technical crew (special props to Natasha Cimmyotti’s follow spots), Linda Anderson’s athletic choreography, and of course Glenn York’s tight, restrained direction and the product is a show well worth seeing.
The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through June 18th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.