REVIEWS: The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd

The Roar of the Greasepaint- The Smell of the Crowd Review December 6, 2002
Reviewed by Martin Denton

In the old days, musicals begat hit pop songs (not like now, when too often hit pop songs beget musicals). So it was with The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd, which was written in 1965 by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, and whose score features at least four tunes that will be familiar to anyone who was alive back then: "A Wonderful Day Like Today," "Where Would You Be Without Me?", "Who Can I Turn To?" and "Nothing Can Stop Me Now!" Even if you aren’t sure you remember them, you will find yourself grinning with recognition when they pop up in the current, truly delightful revival of Greasepaint, at the 14th Street Y under the auspices of Musicals Tonight!

It’s a welcome visitor, and not only for giving us the chance to hear these songs again. The entire score is charming: they’re not exactly theatre songs the way we’ve come to understand them, being at once sophisticated and easily extractable. "Who Can I Turn To?", for example, turns out to be a character’s plea with God, though when Tony Bennett recorded it subsequently it felt like the plaint of an abandoned lover. Such was the particular talent of songsmiths like Bricusse and Newley, whose work came at the tail end of the golden age of musical comedy.

Greasepaint itself, notwithstanding the nature of its songs, is a kind of primitive ancestor of what we nowadays call the concept musical - a show built around a notion rather than a story, which then assumes a particular shape to suit that notion: form dictating content, rather than the other way around. Bricusse and Newley’s big idea in Greasepaint is to examine the British class system and its apparent corollary of maintaining the status quo. They zero in on two characters called Sir and Cocky who, in a series of scenes (sketches, more accurately) exemplify the eternal struggle (game?) between the haves and have-nots. In the end, they are forced to realize that their symbiosis is both more complicated and more potentially changeable than either initially believed. Greasepaint mostly comes down on the other side of Cocky and the common man; it feels naïve in 2002, but when this show first appeared, its politics were probably viewed as radical (especially its uncompromising take on racism).

I’m not saying that Bricusse and Newley achieved their intention all that well - it’s a primitive show, as I said, because lack of precedent and, perhaps, self-confidence forced them to pull punches all over the place. The form they chose for Greasepaint is British Music Hall, but the resultant musical numbers are even looser than they have to be (see the comment about "Who Can I Turn To?" above). They made an interesting decision to have just the two main characters, with occasional and very brief visits from a Negro, a Girl, and a Bully. More characters might have made the show less a showcase for two stars than it evolved into.

Eventually, Chicago got the formula right. But Greasepaint is an intriguing, though flawed, show, and it’s great to see it on its feet, for - I believe - the very first time in New York since it closed nearly forty years ago.

Producer Mel Miller has done a fine job mounting it. As is his custom, he’s filled the ensemble with hard-working, talented folks: the chorus of Urchins consist of Amy Epstein, Lauren Lebowitz, Adrienne Pisoni, Sandie Rosa, Jennifer L. Rose, Margie Stokley, and Heather Stone, and they’re terrific, each exhibiting a distinct personality and yet all working together seamlessly. They sound great - seven pristine unamplified (!) voices harmonizing assuredly on a very tuneful score. Mamie Perris is suitably doll-like as the Girl; Drake Andrew is quite amusing as the Bully; and Jimmy Rivers is riveting as the Negro, singing his number "Feeling Good" with forceful exuberance.

For the leads, Miller has done very well, casting the accomplished actor David Edwards as Cocky, and the inimitable living treasure George S. Irving as Sir Edwards has the unenviable task of trying to keep us from noticing that every inch of his role was tailored to the outsized personality of Anthony Newley. By the time he sings his heartfelt "Who Can I Turn To?’ at the Act One finale he has succeeded in doing so, and when he leaps into the exhilarating "Nothing Can Stop Me Now!" in Act Two he has made the character his own. Irving, meanwhile, is spectacularly good in a role he was born to play - all bluster and bully and malevolence concealed under a veneer of grace and charm. He wraps his deep and sonorous voice around the script’s terrible puns and mock-banal lyrics with relish; nobody sounds like him, and it’s a thrill to see and hear him in such utterly fine fettle.

The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd will never be considered a great, or even a pretty good, musical - it’s too clearly a compromise between the desire to say something socially important on the one hand and the need to entertain audiences with showbiz know-how on the other. But at $19 it’s perhaps the best musical theatre bargain in town: not only do you get great songs, a talented cast, and two exceptional star performances, but you even get something interesting to talk about afterward.

The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd
The New Yorker December 23 & 30, 2002

Broadway veteran George S. Irving leads the cast in this Musicals Tonight staging of the 1965 Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley hit. In this era of high-tech musicals, it’s a pleasure to hear fine voices belt out show tunes in an unamplified setting. Irving, David Edwards, Jimmy Rivers, and a female chorus deliver a catchy assortment of songs, including "A Wonderful Day like Today," "Who Can I Turn To?" and "Feeling Good." Still, Bricusse’s book, a strained conceit about the Game of Life, is relentlessly allegorical. It’s hard to believe that anything so jejune could have run on Broadway for two hundred and thirty-two performances, even in the sixties. (14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th Street 362-5620. Closes November. 24.)

The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd in Concert
Back Stage January 17, 2003
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

When The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd opened on Broadway in 1965, it must have seemed experimental. First of all, the second collaboration between Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley was basically a two-character vaudeville on the British class structure. This allegory also included a Greek chorus of urchins. And with 22 musical numbers, it was on the way to the through-sung musicals of later years.

The original production had an enormous asset in the considerable personal charisma of stars Cyril Ritchard and Anthony Newley. Thomas Mills’ production for Musicals Tonight obtained a legitimate stage star to play Sir - George S. Irving. His diction and characterization were excellent as the British upper-class nob, Sir, who plays the Game of Life with Cocky, his servant. David Edwards had the look and the voice for the ever-optimistic lower-class lad, but without a Cockney accent and Newley’s star wattage, he didn’t register in the way this Chaplinesque role should.

Cocky always plays by the rules, while Sir keeps changing them. And the problem with the material is that even with the brief appearances of several minor characters, it is all too much the same, repetitious and ultimately a little tedious, even with its four famous songs: "A Wonderful Day Like Today," "Where would You Be Without Me?", "Who Can I Turn To?", and of course, "The Joker."

Leslie Ann Hendricks as The Kid had more of this quality because most of her role is reaction. Jimmy Rivers as The Negro did a memorable job with his one number, "Feeling Good." Other walk-ons included Mamie Parris as The Girl, and Drake Andrew as The Bully. Barbara Anselmi gave a fine piano rendition of the score as musical director, but without the original orchestrations, the music sounded a bit thin.

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