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A CurtainUp DC Review
Brother Russia, a character who leads a ragtag itinerant theater troupe, acts as the narrator. Looking like a Viet Vet on the skids, wheelchair-bound Brother Russia is shabbily dressed in a Che Guevera t-shirt, coat and pyjama bottoms that have seen better days, hole-y gloves and eerie little round sunglasses. Courtesy of costume designer Kathleen Geldard, he appears menacing but also intriguing. On stage for nearly the whole evening, John Lescault, giving his best performance in years.
Lescault, has just the right balance of irony and sarcasm. He is also blessed with many of the show’s best lines. Some of those lines linger for the right reason — Brother Russia’s proclamation that his “death” in one of the early scenes would be the first of many before the evening’s end. The way he comes “back to life” at the end of the second act is both startling and funny, as is his introduction to the intermission. The elegant and endearing Anastasia’s oh, so colloquial, “oh, my God,” however, seems out of character, chronologically incorrect.
Who’s who and what’s what may have been explained in the opening number “Brother Russia Presents” but either the miking and/or the on-stage musicians (two keyboards, reeds, trombone, guitar, bass and drums, under the direction of Gabriel Mangiante) drowned out some ofthe lyrics.
The story t begins in Siberia, where Brother Russia and his theater troupe come across a young man by the name of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (Doug Kreeger), who has just been spurned by his family for letting his kid brother drown. (If you lose one son in a drowning accident why would you kick out of the family your remaining son is just one of the puzzling questions not answered.) On his own, Rasputin declares that he will serve no man other than himself. The players tell the story of his remarkable rise to power.
Claiming to have special mystical powers of healing, Rasputin insinuates himself into Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra’s employ as faith healer to their hemophilic son. A few words to the sickly kid and wow! the bleeding stops, earning Rasputin gratitude and respect — that is until he falls for Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughter, Anastasia, played and sung beautifully by Natascia Diaz, who even surpasses her dazzling 2009 Helen Hayes nominated performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman., Wily manipulator that he is (or should be), Rasputinmakes it back to the Winter Palace and Anastasia, abd as a political confidante to the Tsar for whom there is much trouble ahead with the onset of the first World War and the Bolshevik revolution.
The audience was clearly thrilled by the show’s musicality and universally strong voices. As Rasputin, Doug Kreeger brings power and pathos to every number he sings. His voice and intonation are faultless though he lacks the hard edge the role calls for. Rasputin is a conniver, a rake, a womanizer, a son of a bitch who is always on the make. As Kreeger plays him he’s a pussy cat, a nice guy who had some rough times. Brother Russia lacks nothing theatrically and all the voices are good. Dempsey and Rowe, who have shown their strengths before with The Witches of Eastwick and The Fix (a hit in Washington that went to New York where it came unglued), give the \\ audience plenty to enjoy.
Eric Schaeffer once again exercises his multi-talented direction but Brother Russia would benefit greatly from a heavy edit of its two and a half hours —. a few less episodes, a few less numbers, although it would be hard to know which songs to drop as most are very well written. “The Great War,” though somewhat reminiscent of the songs in the musical Oh, What A Lovely War is stirring while “Out, Out, Out,” sung by Grigori’s parents is dramatic in its cruelty. The song that will surely have a great future in cabarets is the second act opener “Vodka,” a drinking song with a refrain that goes “the only absolute in life is vodka.” It's sung with force and hilarity by Tracy Lynn Olivera, but he joke referring to Stolichnaya that followsr is superfluous.
Erin Driscoll, as Anastasia’s maid Dominika, has excellent timing and wit. Kevin McAllister as Anton/Dmitri displays a voice and stage presence that one hopes will lead to his being given larger roles in shows to come. A very svelte Stephen Gregory Smith as Felix, a fop in red patent high heels and a ridiculously exaggerated Mohawk, walks, or rather dances, off with every scene he is in. He’s that good.
The show’s Russian-ness comes through in many ways: Misha Kachman’s dark interiors lit very effectively (by Colin K. Bills) with strings of single bulbs, the Tsarina’s icon-like head-piece and references in the script to Chekhov (there’s even a theatre in-joke, “to Moscow”) and Doestoevsky. At times the music sounds so Russian I found myself looking to see if there was a balalaika being played, andd Jodi Moccia’s choreography includes a very authentic and thrilling kazatzke.
There’s much to like in Brother Russia. It only it weren't so weighted down by its length and its meandering, episodic through-line.