Monday, April 16, 2012

“Brother Russia” -- Arlington’s Signature Theatre debuts another original musical

By Mark A. Newman
Photo by Scott Suchman

I have to admit to being somewhat hesitant about the new musical Brother Russia at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. It is another creation by the duo of John Dempsey (book and lyrics) and Dana Rowe (music), whose past efforts include The Fix and The Witches of Eastwick. While I never saw The Fix, I have been enamored of its score for over a decade; as for Eastwick…I saw it in London and utterly loathed it. So you can easily understand my wariness prior to dipping my toe into their new endeavor.

Fortunately I am glad to say that the duo’s latest creation, Brother Russia, is a stirring musical romp despite trotting out a few tired old theatrical chestnuts. The show begins with a traveling Russian acting troupe trying to decide which show to perform when the show’s makeshift narrator and title character (John Lescault) ascertains that tonight they will be performing a show about the Mad Monk himself, Rasputin. Brother Russia also purports to be Rasputin so you’ve got that going on too.

And speaking of tired old theatrical chestnuts, how often have we seen the “traveling troupe of actors performing a show within a show?” A lot, by my count. I’m still not convinced it’s the best way to tell a story and within the context of Brother Russia, it detracted from the onstage action more than it helped. The storytelling would be interrupted to change an actress or comment on the cheap-looking stage blood to varying degrees of success. For example, when the actress playing Anastasia was to be replaced, there was no reason given other than Brother Russia’s own personal whim.

Another one of these whims is when stage manager Sasha is commanded to take on the role of Rasputin “because he knows every line in the show.” Umm, okay. Thankfully Sasha is played with leading man star quality by Doug Kreeger, but there was no reason given for Brother Russia’s decision. Where was the regular leading man?

While framing the show within this context is not original at best and distracting at worst, I found myself categorizing the characters as those I’ve seen in other musicals: Sasha, the bearded everyman at the center of the show = JeanValjean; Brother Russia, the wheelchair-bound storyteller = The Man in Chair from Drowsy Chaperone; Felix, the flamboyant Russian emissary = Frank N. Furter from Rocky Horror; Tsarina Alexandria = Norma Desmond with an entrance down a staircase with a funky headdress to boot; Anastasia, the ignored daughter who plods about an attic full of memories = Little Edie from Grey Gardens. Then again, think how cool a musical would be that incorporated all those characters. One number called “The Great War” actually reminded me of “War is a Science” from Pippin, a show I haven’t seen in three decades.

Despite the lapses in originality and the hiccups in the storytelling, all is forgiven due to the able and hardworking cast. But the proof is in the pudding, or at least in terms of musical theater, in the score and on this count Brother Russia delivers handily. Not only is the rock-oriented score a nice entry into the musical theatre pantheon, the orchestrations by August Eriksmoen are, in a word, stellar. There are some very interesting choices in terms of instrumentation on a few tunes that will grab your attention.

The Signature Theatre is to be commended for presenting an exhilarating array of new musicals each season and Brother Russia is certainly worth seeing. Despite the above nitpicking, the show has much going for it, especially the winning cast, the rocking score, and Eric Schaeffer’s deft direction.

Brother Russia
Book & Lyrics by John Dempsey
Music by Dana Rowe
Scenic Design Misha Kachman
Costume Design Kathleen Geldard
Lighting Design Colin K. Bills
Sound Design Matt Rowe
Orchestrations August Eriksmoen
Music Direction Gabriel Mangiante
Choreography Jodi Moccia
Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Featuring: Natascia Diaz, Erin Driscoll, Doug Kreeger, John Lescault, Kevin McAllister, Amy McWilliams, Christopher Mueller, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Stephen Gregory Smith, Russell Sunday, and Rachel Zampelli.

Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206

Tickets: 703 820 9771; ticketmaster: 703 573 SEAT

Closed April, 15th.

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