“Captain Greedy’s Carnival”: The P.T. Barnum musical about free market capitalism
"Captain Greedy's Carnival"

CULVER CITY, Calif.—Gordon Gekko may have articulated the Reagan era’s ethos when he proclaimed “Greed is good” in Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street. But when it comes to sheer showmanship and moral musings, The Actors’ Gang grabs the brass ring and hits a bull’s eye with Captain Greedy’s Carnival. Ethically, of course, Captain Greedy is not good.

In its world premiere, the first act of Captain Greedy’s Carnival, book and lyrics by Jack Pinter and music by Roger Eno, is an exceedingly clever concoction combining the free market philosophy of economists such as Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman with the format of a carnival. Capitalism is insightfully compared to a carnival’s games of chance. Through this circus-like atmosphere the co-creators, their cast of about 20 performers (The Gang’s all here!), plus a live band lampoon laissez-faire economics with a humorous harpoon, its razor-sharp tip dipped in acid.

This carnivorous carnival’s guru of not so sublime subprime mortgages, derivatives and other capitalistic gobbledygook is glib sideshow impresario Captain Greedy (the indefatigable Will Thomas McFadden, who also, quite remarkably, directs this madcap menagerie). Costumed like a carnival barker crossed by a ringmaster, top hat and all, the fast talking Captain Greedy spews and spins nonsensical doubletalk about the riches those who drink his heady brew of babble will accrue. All they have to do is fork over their life savings to this financial fakir for him to “invest.” (Indeed, the Captain’s face-painted crony, portrayed by Bob Turton, is actually named Fakir).

An all-American blue-collar family falls for the get-rich-quick doublespeak. Dad (Pedro Shanahan alternates with Chris Bisbano in the role) is a construction worker. Lucky viewers sitting close enough will be able to watch the expressions on willowy Guebri Vanover’s visage as Mom (Lynde Houck alternates in the part), who is initially enamored by Captain Greedy’s siren song of high finance. Their employment-challenged son Junior (Ethan Corn) and the stellar Julia Finch as his Girlfriend (Zoe Hall alternates in the role) also fall for the silver-tongued Captain’s hollow promises hook, line and stinker.

But in Act II, after the bubble inevitably bursts, all hell starts to break loose, with the family and other disenchanted dramatis personae turning on the Pied Piper of not-so-high finance. During the first act McFadden’s empty pledges of prosperity reminded me of the pie in the sky of bringing jobs back to the USA to make America great again. (Just what we need: More coal mines!) During the second act, Captain Greedy hides his identity but oddly, in doing so, McFadden actually becomes more overtly Trump-like in his tonalities and mannerisms.

As the people wise and rise up, the carny and his craven minions seek to outsmart the masses who have become increasingly disgruntled, as none of Captain Greedy’s schemes to enrich them have borne fruit. A glaring problem with the script is that while it has an incisive critique of the free enterprise system it doesn’t really offer any clear alternative. Carnival may be anti-capitalist but what is this Brechtian romp pro?

Nevertheless, the musical has witty, powerful songs with lively dances choreographed by Lindsay Kerr. During the intermission, some songs are sung in the lobby and concession area of company’s Ivy Substation. In particular, Cady Zuckerman, who plays the Crying Man and is in the ensemble, rather deliciously dishes out “I Didn’t Get My Bonus This Year,” wherein a financial sector employee moans and groans at not getting her annual payoff. Other standouts in the large ensemble include Emily Reas and Christie Harms, both full of charm.

The aforementioned and aptly named Julia Finch can turn on a dime, transitioning from virginal girl-next-door trope to lusty woman without missing a beat, demonstrating her range as an actress and as a warbler. But while the entire cast is lively, McFadden is a marvel as the title character; appearing in almost every scene, he is preternaturally energetic. McFadden never fades out; he possesses a sort of Jack Black-like vibe, smile and physicality (although he’s far slimmer).

It’s hard to believe that McFadden also directs this approximately two and half hour two-acter that sprawls all over the place. At the after party, in between taking pies in the face, McFadden noted that in his seven years with The Gang this is the most complicated production the company has mounted. Perhaps Carnival has too many sideshow acts and is too busy with too much going on and could be trimmed by half an hour? There are zombies (but of course) and a British vignette which seems plucked from out of thin air—but then I learned the co-creators are British-based, so that explains the Union Jacks. (Roger Eno is the brother of English musician Brian Eno, and while Jack Pinter was born in New York he moved to the U.K. years ago.)

The frenetic play has lots of visual flourishes: Projection design of Hoovervilles and more by Cihan Sahin; a circus tent-like big top set by McFadden, Jason Lovett and Django Pinter; Dave Silverman’s art in the lobby, theatre and on the playbill cover; lots of makeup and, need we say, no Tim Robbins-related show would be complete without a commedia dell’arte mask or two (Robbins, The Gang’s Artistic Director, said he helped produce Carnival).

Carnival has a Brecht/Weill vibe, but it also reminded me of the Depression-era satire Of Thee I Sing, with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and book by Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman, who also directed it on Broadway in 1931. Thee was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Eighty-six years later theatergoers who enjoy scathing social criticism combined with hilarity and music will be delighted to know the Carnival is in town.

The Actors’ Gang’s Captain Greedy’s Carnival plays at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232 on Thurs. and Sat. at 8:00 pm through Nov. 11. For more info: (310) 838-GANG; www.theactorsgang.com.

Rampell is a co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.