Sunday, October 8, 2017

Review: There's a Sucker Born Every Minute for CAPTAIN GREEDY'S CARNIVAL

Dora Kiss, Will Thomas McFadden, Adam Bennett, Bob Turton and Paulette Zubata.
All photos by Ashley Randall

The title of the show tells you everything you need to know about The Actors’ Gang’s latest production: Captain Greedy’s Carnival, A Musical Nightmare. From it, you expect to see a circus-style entertainment with a dishonest ringleader, musical numbers, and no happy ending. That’s exactly what you get.

Billed as a musical satire, it presents the glorification of greed and corruption in a twisted capitalist society where the rich get richer and the regular guy gets screwed (sound familiar?) through the lens of a carnival sideshow, which is itself the epitome of exploitation. In fact, the disclaimer at the bottom of the program even states, “Entry to Captain Greedy’s Carnival is at your own risk. The customer getting screwed is not our problem.” And the captain means it.

For the next two hours and twenty minutes, he shows us all the ways the little guy gets fleeced, often by his own stupidity. There is no subtle symbolism here. The troupe’s sharp point of view blasts from every pore in the Gang’s broad presentational style of storytelling.

Bob Turton and Will McFadden
Essentially, the show is a series of sketches loosely written around 23 songs and a reprise that tell the story of a family who gets played for suckers. The Wheel of Random Taxation, Home-buying Shell Game, Budget Cut Burlesque, and Foreclosure Arcade are a few of the mash-ups the cast tackles in what feels more like an enhanced musical revue than a book musical.

Program notes by the playwright (Jack Pinter) say the songs and concept came first with the book following, which explains the episodic nature of the piece. It isn’t always easy to create a compelling arc when you write a plot to connect existing songs and that’s the case here. It was workshopped with the company before this world premiere but, even after its developmental phase, it feels like a work in progress.

Missing is the precision that has made past Actors’ Gang productions so effective. Instead, scenes are sloppily executed, choreography is haphazard, and actors repeatedly mumble or flub their lines. The whole thing ends up feeling like a class exercise still finding its beats. The second time I saw the same ensemble member break character, grin, and roll her eyes at her own mistakes I realized the actors were either under-rehearsed, unfocused, or having an off night. Whichever the case, it didn’t serve the piece.

And while the show is topical and timely, it also beats its subject to death without offering the audience a way out. It isn’t required to, but the Gang is preaching to the choir here. We know we’re being taken advantage of by the government and big business so there is a level of satisfaction missing from the experience when it pokes fun at the expense of the very people watching it.

The musical is most successful in its satire and in well thought out characters like Bob Turton’s Pee-Wee Herman-esque big Talker and pontificating Professor Freemarket. Will McFadden, who also directs and is one of the Gang’s biggest assets, is on stage for almost the entirety of the show as the charismatic Captain Greedy, but a relatively quiet audience the night I attended seemed to thwart even his attempts to engage them.

Bob Turton, Paulette Zubata and the cast 

Roger Enos score consists mainly of song ditties sung in unison, although I could distinguish parts in the finale. None are particularly memorable after the final curtain however the ideas in them hit home. Lyrics with bad prosody (when the emphasis is on the wrong syllable) however, are inexcusable, and this show has a lot of them.

The writers could easily edit out 6-8 of the songs, trim the running time to under two hours and produce it in one act. Moving the intermission carnival fun and games in the lobby to before the show (even if you needed to delay the curtain) would help ramp up the energy of the audience, especially on a low energy night like this one.

But what Captain Greedy’s Carnival lacks in polish it makes up for in passion. McFadden’s closing speech is as blunt as they come, driving the message home that if you let yourself be distracted by the song and dance, you deserve what you get.

The threadbare trappings of the production design by McFadden, Pinter, and Jason Lovett give the production a salty air. Projections by Cihan Sahin are shown on the surrounding circus tent backdrop to punch up the shows point of view. Bosco Flanagans lighting gives the carnival the glaring edge it needs to feel just seedy enough, as do Christie Harms’ costumes.

Paulette Zubata and Dora Kiss

September 30 – Saturday, November 11, 2017
The Actors’ Gang
9070 Venice Blvd
Culver City, CA  90232
Thursday Evenings – “Pay What You Can” 
Tickets: 310-838-4264 or

Bob Turton

The cast of Captain Greedy's Carnival

Will Thomas McFadden and the cast

Mary Eileen O'Donnell

The cast of Captain Greedy's Carnival

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