Everybody’s under one tent as ‘Nightmare Alley’ becomes a musical

Life is a cabaret, old chum — unless, that is, it’s a carnival show.

So step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and see the slick, charming salesman Stan Carlisle morph into a carny shyster, a gospel preacher, a human monster! Watch him fall in love with Molly, the sweet-hearted showgirl who earns her pay in a shocking manner but yearns for marriage and motherhood.

Inside the striped tent being raised this spring on the main stage of the Geffen Playhouse, you’ll meet other lost souls, frustrated dreamers, people who drifted from the straight-and-narrow path onto the road to perdition. The time and setting is the Depression-era Dust Bowl. But some of these con men and suckers bear a disturbing resemblance to the people we glimpse in news photos, and our mirrors, every day.

“We’re all freaks,” playwright Jonathan Brielle was saying. “We’re all Bozos on this bus, as my generation used to say.” But, he added, we’re freaks with free will, misfits with the capacity to change.

It was a few days into rehearsal for Brielle’s new musical, “Nightmare Alley,” which is based on the flesh-crawling 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, later made into a noir-ish cult film starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. As the show’s cast and crew assembled in the Geffen’s rehearsal room, a Gothic-revival enclosure that could pass for a medieval tavern, many tough choices awaited. (The show, which opened last week, runs through May 23.)

The production’s principal creative team — director Gil Cates, choreographer Kay Cole and music director Gerald Sternbach — were trying to find the right tone and to make the show’s multiple moving parts mesh.

“The book is very dark,” Cole said. “We’ll see how many of these dark corners we can go into.”

Cates, the Geffen’s founder and producing director, said that in the old days you’d take a new musical on the road for tryouts in Boston or New Haven before opening in New York, and there’d be plenty of time to work out the kinks. Now, he had only a three-week rehearsal sprint. He smiled a what-the-hell smile and shrugged. “At the end of the day, the best part of the show is the process,” he said. “Because once the show opens, either it’s a hit or it’s not a hit.”

Sternbach was wrestling with Brielle’s catchy pastiche of a score, with its scattered blasts of rock ‘n’ roll, wry wisps of Dixieland and intimations of a Weimar nightclub. “I call him the love child of Randy Newman and Kurt Weill,” Sternbach said of Brielle.

The rest of the production staff sat around four folding tables displaying a montage of rehearsal-room essentials: half-full Pellegrino bottles, overstuffed loose-leaf binders, pink marking pens, stray cellphones, tissues, cough drops, spent coffee cups.

Brielle was calmly juggling triple duty as book writer, composer and lyricist. Long before he’d acquired the rights to “Nightmare Alley” from Gresham’s widow, he was fascinated by the idea of “how a man could sink so low” as Stan Carlisle.

Brielle’s résumé includes stints as composer-in-residence at New York’s Circle Rep, an incubator for works by such heavyweight dramatists as Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson, and as inventor of “Enter the Night,” a Las Vegas revue that Brielle described as “slightly sexy, slightly tacky.”

Perhaps the only thing trickier than producing a new play is mounting a new musical. Think it’s hard to round up nine proven actors and persuade them to spend weeks or months doing a live show that pays a fraction of what film or television would for twice as much work?

Now try finding nine performers who can do all that and have Broadway-caliber singing and dancing chops. Oh, and by the way, several will have to play dual parts, for artistic as well as fiscal reasons. The Geffen will attempt to meet those demands with a cast that includes the Broadway and off-Broadway regulars Michael McCarty and Mary Gordon Murray and versatile L.A. actor Larry Cedar.

So what made James Barbour, a veteran of Broadway’s “Assassins” and “Beauty and the Beast,” take the lead role of Stan? Or Sarah Glendening decide to tackle Molly, the carnival showgirl whose scam is to twitch and grimace while sitting in a fake “electric chair”?

“It’s the Geffen, and it’s a new musical, and it’s a part that I’m really attracted to,” said Glendening, a Julianne Moore lookalike who performed in New York in the Beach Boys jukebox musical “Good Vibrations.” She acknowledged trepidation because she hadn’t done live theater for some time.

“I had sort of taken all my theater, all my singing, acting, and put it in a box and locked it away,” she said. But she was “getting a lot of encouragement” from Barbour. “If he really thought I was crappy he wouldn’t be telling me that.”

Stan and his flimflamming ilk are familiar figures in U.S. culture: Herman Melville’s Confidence Man, Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, the Wizard of Oz, Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, and all those televangelists, mind-reading TV shrinks, politicians and Wall Street soothsayers who claim to have the snake-oil cures to whatever ails you. The show’s creators don’t want to overplay this idea because, for obvious reasons, it’s a sore subject nowadays.

Barbour said he felt fortunate to find the right jousting partner for his shady character. “He’s a lost soul in many ways,” Barbour said of Stan, “and he’s pushed many things away, and now here’s somebody who finally pushes back.”

Pushing and pulling, the show started coming together.

One day, Cole was coaching the four female performers who play the mysterious, alluring Tarot Ladies. Like the archetypes in a Tarot deck, which can mean different things depending on whether they’re turned up or down, the actors transform into other characters with a single costume change or the flick of a lyric.

“Let’s take the musical comedy out of it and make it a little more storytelling,” Cole urged.

Cole and Cates turned their attention to the big musical number in which Stan and Molly quarrel over their clashing hopes. The scene requires the actors to occupy separate psychological spaces but maintain their connection, like the interlocked spheres of a binary star.

“Take it easy,” Cates counseled Barbour as the booming-voiced tenor struggled to keep up with the shifting tempos of “Nobody Home.”

Glendening was facing the opposite challenge, trying to step up her vocal intensity, as the pregnant Molly pleads with Stan to mend his errant ways.

“Let’s go back; let’s try this thing, guys,” Cates said.

This time around, Glendening opened up her emotions and let the tune rip. Cole gave her a thumbs-up. “Nice!” she stage-whispered. “Excellent!”

Later, the off-stage chatter turned to the question of why the American musical theater has grown progressively darker over the last decades. Sure, “Show Boat” and “Carousel” weren’t all sweetness and light, but they were " Mary Poppins” compared with the contemporary post-Sondheim musical theater of “Violet,” “Floyd Collins,” “Ragtime” and “Rent.”

Conveying that darkness while still keeping the show’s design palette appealing was the task for the team of John Arnone (sets), Christina Haatainen Jones (costumes) and Daniel Ionazzi (lights). In concert with Cates and the playwright, they dreamed up the production’s Expressionistic environmental design, installing a circular tentlike curtain above the Geffen stage, and covering its walls with replica vintage carny posters.

Arnone said he could remember sneaking into carny shows as a kid growing up in Dallas. “It was frightening,” he recalled. “The atmosphere was one of mysteriousness, it was darkly lit. They didn’t want you to see too closely.”

“It was all a con,” Ionazzi responded.

By the final dress rehearsal, the show was ready, or ready enough, to put up for the public. “It’s still coming together, it’s still a work-in-progress,” several cast and crew members said, which is what showbiz people tend to say.

Now audiences will come and, as Cates said, this unusual, multihued musical will be a hit or not a hit. So hurry, hurry! Step right up! Welcome to their nightmare.