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Compass Rose polishes a rare gem in 'Roar of the Greasepaint ...'

Compass Rose Theater is capping its fifth season with a little known 1960s British musical "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd" by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

This rarely revived musical, probing topics from religion to rebellion, is a fascinating choice in its plot examining the struggles between rich and poor. That struggle is depicted in a life game between main characters: Sir, who always wins because he makes all the game rules, and Cocky who loses, although he is continuously assured by Sir that he should enjoy playing the game anyway.

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Compass Rose artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne notes that 1960s British class struggles of the poor being dominated by the rich have parallels 50 years later in our national political scene. She underscores the play's lesson in Cocky learning to make choices to gain equality.

As director, Merry-Browne sprinkles what would be a dated script with uncannily current news quotes by politicians dominating today's airwaves — sometimes with hilarious results,

She also displays her gift for assembling an ideal cast of singing actors, here many making their Compass Rose debut. The cast transforms this somewhat depressing tale, which is told through a relatively lackluster score compared melodic 1960s shows such as "Camelot," "Hello, Dolly" or "Fiddler on the Roof."

Nevertheless, this show becomes an immensely entertaining experience heightened by brilliant interpretations of well-known tunes such as "Who Can I Turn To" and "A Wonderful Day Like Today" among others.

As Sir, Elliott Bales is a commanding presence who invests songs with substance, bringing delectable brightness to "Wonderful Day" as he meets Cocky, to whom he sardonically conveys his gentleman's rules of honesty, integrity and fair play. Proving adequate in dance as well, Bales almost succeeds in making the villainous Sir likable in his soulful reprise of "Who Can I Turn To."

In a sensational Compass Rose debut, Piers Portfolio as Cocky delivers a nuanced, multi-layered portrayal conveying the character's desperate desire to succeed in Sir's game of life good-naturedly, striving to grasp the changing rules.

Possessing an operatically trained voice of remarkable versatility, Portfolio invests "My First Love Song" with a warm romanticism, creating a moving ballad. Portfolio's piously supplicating "Who Can I Turn To" is a revelation in contrast to the familiar Tony Bennet version. Moving with a dancer's easy athletic grace, Portfolio proves a fully accomplished song and dance man who would be at home on any stage.

Another notable Compass Rose debut is delivered by Anna Deblasio as The Girl, whose voice is equal to Portfolio's in their "My First Love Song" duet. Her dancing may be the best of anyone in the talented cast. From the outset she is a standout when she joins the urchins in an earlier dance sequence, and later reveals her skilled acting as she transitions from shy girl to strong woman, embracing the battle with dominant males.

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Establishing a new benchmark is Nygel Deville Robinson in the pivotal role of The Foreigner, delivering a show-stopping "Feeling Good."

Also marking his Compass Rose debut is Tommy Malek as The Kid, apprentice to Elliott Bales' Sir. The two have great rapport, as The Kid adroitly straddles the gap between Sir's tenets and Cocky's formulating beliefs. Malek contributes his strong vocal talents to expand the urchins' chorus.

Merry-Browne showcases young teen girls' talents in the trio of urchins who brighten this production from the opening scene — where they scale the heights to deliver a choral interlude from the balcony and later descend by swinging on a rope to the lower stage. It's a fabulous spectacle.

A standout engaged in every scene as Mitzi is Sarah Grace Clifton, who earlier impressed Compass Rose audiences in the title role in "Oliver" and now displays professionalism and versatility as dancer, singer and actor.

Others contributing to the production are Sarah Kathryn Makl, who makes her professional stage debut here as Kay, and Charleze Lefler making her Compass Rose debut at age 12 in the role of Cyndi. Also contributing to the success of this production are music director Anita O'Connor, choreographer Elizabeth Spilsbury and piano accompanist Jimothy Rogers.

Performances of "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd" continue weekends through June 5 at Compass Rose Theater, 49 Spa Road, Annapolis. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 410-980-6662 or online at compassrosetheater.org.

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