One of America’s deepest, darkest, dirtiest noir fictions, William Lindsay Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley,” is bowdlerized and sanitized for your protection in Jonathan Brielle’s musicalization at the Geffen Playhouse. While the novel still shocks today as it exposes the nexus of religion, spiritualism and sensuality underlying the American dream, here it’s reduced to a humdrum showbiz-as-life decadence metaphor, and a morality play whose message would have been well received in the popular theater of 1912.
In the famous 1947 movie, itself watered down but far less toothless than this tuner, Tyrone Power is perfectly cast as Stan, an opportunistic little pisher whose raw sexuality fuels his ruthless rise from carnival stooge to stage mentalist; he finally becomes a James Van Praagh type, consulting the wealthy in their intercourse with the dead.
To tailor this alleycatting swindler to a burly Broadway belter like James Barbour, who can do “Jekyll & Hyde” in stride and has a great Jean Valjean in him one day, is to set aside all the desperate vulnerability (including a nagging Oedipal conflict) at the heart of Gresham’s critique.
Barbour’s Stan is just an overeager snake oil peddler, whose expanding ambition makes him neglect the love of Good Woman Molly (Sarah Glendening) until his flouting of various commandments demands he be punished and he sings “There’s Nobody Home.” There’s no descent to the deepest circles of Hell here, just a short detour to Palookaville as the cast gets lit from beneath and glares at us accusingly.
Enough of Gresham’s plot threads have been removed or twisted to render the action incomprehensible. The older women Stan beds in the novel — a kindly carny with true second sight and Dr. Lilith, perhaps the most rapacious female shrink in all of fiction — are handed to Mary Gordon Murray with sexuality eliminated and purpose blunted. She mostly stands around and smirks.
Helmer Gilbert Cates presents Stan’s victims with camp rather than complexity (one dowager is a fellow in drag), while Glendening has the impossible task of charting spunky Molly’s now-in, now-out thrall to the hoaxter’s spell.
Brielle’s score goes heavy on the ragtime, a toe-tapping but overfamiliar choice after Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” and “Steel Pier.” Barbour gets one beautiful ballad, “I Surrender,” whose sentiments don’t really apply to this role, and there’s a title tune so reminiscent of “Be Italian” from “Nine” that you await a tarantella.
It doesn’t arrive, but choreographer Kay Cole does have her pleasingly zaftig chorines circling Stan in a sort of witches’ hora during one of his more put-upon moments.