It's not often we get a chance to see a production of The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd, which Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley wrote in 1965 as a follow-up to their 1962 hit Stop the World - I Want to Get Off. But thanks to the good folks at the York Theater, I was able to catch a reading of The Roar of the Greasepaint this past weekend as part of the York's Musicals in Mufti series.
I had always been moderately intrigued by the show's cast cast recording, in particular the jaunty "A Wonderful Day Like Today," one of those bouncy, classic 2/4 showtunes in the manner of "It's Today" or "Step to the Rear." The score features more than its share of enjoyable upbeat numbers, including "Where Would You Be Without Me?" and "Nothing can Stop Me Now," as well as a considerable dose of power ballads, like "Who Can I Turn To?" and "The Joker."
Unfortunately, the show that gave rise to this delightful collection of tunes is a crashing, pretentious bore. My first indication that all was not well came during the always entertaining pre-show announcement from York artistic director James Morgan, who referred to The Roar of the Greasepaint as "absurdist theater plus a little English music hall." Uh-oh. Not exactly a match made in heaven, right?
The story of The Roar of the Greasepaint centers around what appears to be two male characters playing "The Game of Life," or some shit. Not the Milton Bradley version, mind you. Some metaphysical, nihilistic, phenomenological, navel-gazing, fortune cookie version. There's the large, overbearing "Sir," played in the original production by Cyril Ritchard, who lovingly tortures the supposedly adorable Cockney everyman "Cocky," played originally by co-author Newley. Sir makes up the rules of the game -- represented by an actual game board painted onto the stage -- as it goes along to suit his mercurial fancy, and rather predictably, Cocky eventually winds up standing up to Sir and asserting his individual freedom, and blah blah blah.
Rarely has there been such a bright and sprightly score with such a flat and irritating book. The songs seem only tangentially tied to the proceedings at hand, which is probably a mercy for the songs. The book provides only scant setup for most of the numbers, which tend to be detrimentally stop-and-sing. Something unfortunate will happy to Cocky and he'll proceed to sing, "Who can I turn to when you turn away?", but the authors seem to have been unconcerned that the "you" in the song has no logical antecedent in the show. Then, Cocky will have a sudden stroke of luck, and launch into "Nothing Can Stop Me Now," a catchy but generic song that does little to illuminate character or progress the threadbare plot.
Luckily for me, this particular production of The Roar of the Greasepaint featured two terrific performers in the lead roles: the prodigious Jim Brochu (Zero Hour) as Sir, and the irrepressible Josh Grisetti (Enter Laughing) as Cocky. Also on hand all-too-briefly was Quentin Earl Darrington as a character listed in the original Playbill as "The Negro," who winds up acting as a call to arms of sorts for Cocky in a moment of realization so patently predictable that I can't even be bothered to think of an appropriate simile. Darrington thankfully seemed much more comfortable on stage here than he was in Ragtime, giving a performance that was more animated and appealing than either time I saw that short-lived production.
So, if I were you, I wouldn't be in any great hurry to see or produce The Roar of the Greasepaint/The Smell of the Crowd. From where I sit, this is one of those shows that deserves to be obscure, remembered only for its moderately enjoyable cast recording.