Industry doomsayers were all wet about “Enron.” This London bombshell is both a dazzling piece of entertainment and a gripping cautionary tale about the criminal chicanery that eviscerated the most respected corporate body in America. Still, it cost a bundle (a reputed $5 million) to haul this hi-tech show into town, and everyone’s wondering if starstruck musical junkies will part with their coin for a straight play. What’s clear is that the sensational stage effects deliver the same blood-pumping thrills of a musical, wrapped around a play, by Lucy Prebble, with more brains in its head than any tuner since “Assassins.”
So it cost $5 million. So big deal. The theatrical effects alone — a dizzying funhouse of flashing saber lights, full-face and head masks, snarky puppets, cowboy line dancing, hypnotic split-screen projections, a drill-team chorus of marching financial traders, and a gigantic Big Board that never stops its flashing and whirling — are worth every drachma. If we were still living in the disposable play-money Age of Enron, Rupert Goold (who won both the Olivier and the Evening Standard Award for best director) and his inventive creative team would be pulling in sweet bonuses.
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Besides, if this extravaganza ever does go on to become the full-blown musical it stylistically aspires to, show’s sensational star, the indefatigable and unstoppable Norbert Leo Butz (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Wicked”), has solid chops and copious cred in musical-theater land.
In order to compress, explicate, and make us shudder over the hugely complicated boondoggle that was at the heart of the Houston-based energy company’s fabulous fortunes, Prebble has wisely narrowed her storytelling focus to the personal trajectories of four of the principal scoundrels — Enron’s infamous CEO Jeffrey Skilling (Butz), currently in prison but clamoring to get out; sexy thorn-in-his-side Claudia Roe (Marin Mazzie, reveling in her bitch moment); that Teflon guy Kenneth Lay (Gregory Itzin); and the nerdy accountant who gamed the funny numbers, chief financial officer Andy Fastow (Stephen Kunken). But Skilling is the crazy man with the cockamamie plan and Butz has precisely that edge of comic insanity that gives him entree into the minds and so-called hearts of brilliant egomaniacs like Enron’s golden boy.
The Expressionistic storytelling techniques devised by Prebble and artfully conceptualized by helmer Goold clarify the complexity of all the crooked high finance while holding it up to raucous ridicule. And here’s where the stagecraft comes in.
Those bogus “shadow companies” Fastow dreamed up to hide Enron’s mountainous debt are rendered by masked and fearsomely hungry “raptors” hidden away in the bowels of company headquarters. Lehman Brothers shows up as two greedy guys trussed into a single coat. Arthur Andersen defends his shoddy accounting practices with the help of a ventriloquist’s dummy. And Three Blind Mice in huge head masks let us know that nobody in the Bush government is paying the slightest attention — and is indeed abetting — this corporate chicanery.
Some of this spectacle is genuinely daring. There’s a jarring moment at the top of the show when the entire cast comes out marching to “The Star Spangled Banner.” Had this been the company from the show that originated at London’s Headlong Theater and is still playing on the West End, they might, indeed, have had their English heads handed to them. But this American-cast company raises the stakes for the show and actually helps Prebble to get her larger point across — that this is about more than the implosion of one high-flying company. It’s about the manic greed that fueled the Zeitgeist of the exuberant 90s.
Will the show make it? It all depends on how pissed-off people are at the kind of cynical manipulation that goes on in the Enron-inspired companies still thriving in America’s scandalously unregulated corporate universe. If all the victims of Bernie Madoff’s schemes and all the investors sold a bill of goods by Goldman Sachs would just line up for tickets, “Enron” could run forever on the fumes of their rage.