Nightmare Alley at the Geffen Playhouse

May 02, 2010 by Tom Jones

If you’ve always felt a few butterflies when attending a new play, you wouldn’t be alone.

But I’m talking about the audience, and not the actors! Last week was both my first time at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, which also happened to be the evening after the opening show of the musical play "Nightmare Alley."

With a title like Nightmare Alley, it conjures up the obvious–both a nightmare and an alley; the combined imagery abounds of danger and violence in thinly lit back streets of cities where no one finds their way out. 

In the case of the current musical at the Geffen Playhouse with the title “Nightmare Alley,” you’d be incorrect, kind of. “In the end, one character does find himself on a dead-end street, but for several others, life just keep getting better and better.  It’s all about the choices we make in life, which Nightmare Alley demonstrates. Starting with the opening scene, Madam Zeena transports you to a different time and place as she’s a foreboding character in the world of the ‘carnies.’”

But I’m way ahead of myself–the Geffen Playhouse on the outside is tranquil and indeed, a bit misleading of what is in the inside.

Once you enter the Geffen Playhouse through its intimate courtyard and beautiful tiled inlay fountain in its middle, inside is the lobby, of course; however the Geffen Playhouse’s auditorium is large enough to give sway to a large audience, but has the intimacy of smaller venues without a decrease in the experience. Having attended many a play at the Kennedy Center, I can confirm this viewpoint by firsthand experience.

Think Kennedy Center, less a few hundred thousand feet! Nonetheless, the Geffen Playhouse’s sound, amplification, acoustics, stage, and seats are all to die for–and I’d much prefer to see a play on a bit of a smaller set but with all the big-set trappings. The history of how the Geffen Playhouse came to be, and how it was transformed into such a modern and state-of-the-art facility can be read directly from the Geffen Playhouse website.

The Geffen Playhouse does not disappoint in its musical adaption and play of Nightmare Alley.

“Broadway veteran James Barbour (A Tale of Two Cities, Assassins, Urinetown) leads a colorful cast of characters in the world premiere musical Nightmare Alley which opened at the Geffen Playhouse on April 21st, 2010. With music, books and lyrics by New York-based composer Jonathan Brielle and helmed by Geffen Playhouse Producing Director Gilbert Cates, Nightmare Alley is a dark musical set against the shadowy world of the traveling carnivals and tented churches that dominated the Dust Bowl era.”

“Based on the eponymous novel by William Lindsay Gresham (which was later turned into a film with Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell), Nightmare Alley plays upon fate, free-will and the consequences that await when you make the wrong choice. James Barbour stars as Stan, the con turned carnie and back again, who falls in love with Molly, the dark darling of the traveling carnival (the role of Molly is yet to be cast and will be announced shortly).”


“But there are many other side shows to this story: Zeena and Pete, the vaudeville stars now relegated to side show cons – played by Mary Gordon Murray (Broadway’s Footloose, Into the Woods, Coastal Disturbances) and LA theater favorite Larry Cedar (The Colony’s Celadine, Reprise’s She Loves Me [Ovation Award Winner], HBO’s Deadwood), respectively. The gruffly compassionate carnival boss Clem, played by musical theater maven Michael McCarty (Broadway’s To Be or Not to Be, Mary Poppins, Oklahoma); and, with fate and fortune at the center of this gritty tale, four uniquely charming tarot ladies – played by Melody Butiu, Leslie Stevens, Anise E. Ritchie and Alet Taylor – act as the musical’s chorus.”

And from Nightmare Alley’s composer Jonathan Brielle:

When I first read the novel, I was so struck by the question of how someone sinks so low as to become part of a carnival freak show that I felt the need to put this story to music. After working closely with the Gresham estate and in recent years collaborating with Gil, I feel like we are truly ready to raise the big top and watch these fantastic characters come to life in all their revelry and tragedy on the Geffen stage.

Sources: The Geffen Playhouse

Nightmare Alley plays on the Geffen Playhouse’s main stage from April 21st to May 23rd.  so it’s not a long running show. To purchase tickets as soon as possible you can do so online directly from the Geffen Playhouse.

As with most stories, there are highs and lows of how and why you feel the emotions projected toward you, the excitement and thrill of seeing reality through a different time and place, and the actors and orchestra climax into the passion play replete with its lighting, sound, and acting. In this, Nightmare Alley succeeds on all levels.

Without a doubt, the darkness which Nightmare Alley is able to act as a fulcrum and challenge our collective consciousness, paradoxically also helps us to create a lightness of being that we feel after watching such a gripping, and well thought out story that its Producer and Director intended.

Photos courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse

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3 Responses to “Nightmare Alley at the Geffen Playhouse”

  1. Steve Robison says:

    I’m currently writing a story on the redesign of the Geffen Playhouse and the adjacent Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater – designed by Ronald Frink (Ronald Frink Architects). I’m sending your article to Ron – he will be pleased to hear how much you enjoyed the playhouse. Please take a look at RFA’s website to enjoy photos of the playhouse and keep checking with our blog for the story – which will include before photos:
    http://www.rfa-architects.com
    http://thought2form.blogspot.com/2010/06/di-rosa-museum-napa-ca.html

    [Reply]

  2. Steve says:

    Our story, mentioned in the last reply, is now published in Thought2form.blogspot:
    An Architectural Journey – The Geffen Playhouse
    http://thought2form.blogspot.com/2010/10/theater-design-rfalos-angeles.html

    [Reply]

    Lisa Newton Reply:

    @Steve, Great article, Steve. Thanks for the architectural information. :)

    [Reply]

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