Brother Russia

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Editorial Review

Review: Rein it in a little, 'Brother Russia'
By Peter Marks
Friday, Mar. 23, 2012

When a new musical is engaged in the complicated process of trying to find its voice, an audience has to be willing to listen to some misplaced notes, to hear it speak and sing in a sometimes fuzzy-sounding chorus.

If the challenging assignment of figuring out for yourself whether sparks ignite as a score and a concept go a-courtin', then Signature Theatre's world premiere of "Brother Russia" will strike you as a worthwhile evening's dedication to detective work. For its creators, composer Dana Rowe and book writer and lyricist John Dempsey, need the feedback to help them figure out what's best about their sprawling, rock-inflected musical and to jettison the parts that frustratingly and at this point, substantially, weigh it down.

Rowe and Dempsey were the lighthearted craftsmen behind the musical version of "The Witches of Eastwick," jauntily staged by Eric Schaeffer in its U.S. premiere at Signature in 2007. To their credit, they've departed here from the near-universal practice of adapting other material and tried to come up with a highly original narrative, taken from the life of Grigori Rasputin. He was the enigmatic Russian mystic who rose from the Siberian peasantry to become spiritual adviser to the doomed Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra.

They do, however, seem to reveal their own theatrical role models as the musical-within-a-musical unfolds. Stephen Schwartz's "Godspell" and "Pippin," Boublil and Schonberg's "Les Miserables" and, most resonantly, Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" at one point or another all spring to mind, as the narrator of "Brother Russia" - a bearded, wheelchair-bound older eccentric played by John Lescault - takes us back to Imperial Russia and the story of how Rasputin pursued his bloated ambitions.

Some of the pesky bumps an audience member encounters during "Brother Russia" have to do with this ill-defined character, who shares his name with the show's title and purports to be the latter-day embodiment of Rasputin himself. Only now, those under his mesmerizing spell are actors in a ragtag contemporary Russian troupe. On set designer Misha Kachman's rendering of a disheveled stage, the performers, variously enthralled or irritated, rehearse the account of Rasputin's exploits and Brother Russia's distorted version of pre-revolutionary Russian history.

All the while, Lescault's bombastic Brother Russia lays a lot of arch, self-referential commentary on us: "Am I who I say I am? Let's find out!" But in spite of his energetic efforts to get an audience to pay him heed, Brother Russia is an uninteresting device. ("Him again?" you find yourself asking, between songs.) The overwrought final speech devised for Brother Russia and full of musings on time and death is about as unsatisfying a way to wish us all a profound good night as a musical can muster.

Schaeffer gussies up the proceedings to some degree, punking up the look of his actors in garish makeup and costume designer Kathleen Geldard's strident period mashups. One wonders from time to time whether the score, story and production all wouldn't benefit from a toning down of artifice, and the creative team would concentrate more effectively on the musical's nascent strength, in musicalizing the effect Rasputin has on those around him.

The venture certainly has the pipes for it, in the throats of show-tune powerhouse Doug Kreeger as Rasputin in his prime, and Natascia Diaz, in an evocatively mournful turn as the legend-enshrouded Romanov offspring, Anastasia. While Kreeger proves to be an effortless thrill generator in the dreamer's anthem "Dolgaya River," Diaz provides heft to the pulsing emotion of "Crush Me." (They do expertly in tandem, too, singing the romantic ballad, "I Belong to You.") The support is also bountifully there from such solid singer-actors as Rachel Zampelli, playing the bewitching witch who croons "Child of the Wood," and the well-deployed Stephen Gregory Smith, giving courtly decadence its sleazy due in "This Is What You Call the Good Life."

But the evening's contrived theatrical framing is off from the start. Even seated in the second row of Signature's main stage, the Max, I could make out only every 19th word of the title opening song. Perhaps the show beginning on a wrong aural footing made it harder to get comfortable with the work's ongoing, warring realities.

Conductor Gabriel Mangiante's seven-member band, whose sound is often enriched by the fine guitarist Gerry Kunkel, comes into ever-better alignment with the singers as the evening wears on. The actors convincingly step back and forward in time, but they're far more compelling in their czarist guises. (It must be noted that the open-shirted Kreeger - whose chest hair all but gives a performance of its own - and Lescault bear no physical or even temperamental relationship to each other.)

Rowe and Dempsey certainly know have to drive a song to an infectious climax, and in its most effective moments, "Brother Russia" evinces an attractively realized musicianship. In its next incarnation, one hopes the songwriters can each acquire the eye of an editor extraordinaire.

Preview: Signature gives patrons an early taste of 'Russia'
By Celia Wren
Sunday, Mar. 4, 2012

John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe's new rock musical had a twisty genesis. How many works can trace their inspiration to Russian literature, a grocery run in Queens and an episode of "The Sopranos"? But if the show zigzagged conceptually en route to Signature Theatre, its launch from that venue has been as direct as a digital file speeding through cyberspace.

"Brother Russia" starts its world-premiere run at Signature on Tuesday, but the theater began releasing early songs from the show weeks ago. From Feb. 9 through March 1, individuals on Signature's mailing list were scheduled to receive five e-mails containing links to downloadable tracks from "Brother Russia," which spins a yarn about a theater troupe in Siberia and Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, the notorious mystic from the twilight of Tsarist Russia.

According to Signature's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, the e-mail campaign marks the first time the company has attempted such a systematic advance release of material from a new show. In part, the move recognizes the difficulties of launching a made-from-scratch musical in a day when myriad distractions, from Twitter to "Smash," compete for the public's attention.

But the promotional push also represents a gesture of enthusiasm for composer Rowe and book author/lyricist Dempsey, whose previous musicals "The Fix" and "The Witches of Eastwick" played at Signature in 1998 and 2007. The two artists, who met years ago at Ohio State University, have gone separate ways at times, teaming with other collaborators, but Schaeffer relishes the daring and inventiveness of their joint projects.

In tandem, the two "will try things that other writers won't," the artistic director says.

Rowe and Dempsey agree their creative operating modes sync up unusually well, and the fit has only tightened over the years. "You can get to a deeper place because of the time you've spent together," Dempsey says.

This new venture has origins in Queens, where Dempsey lived some time ago. A 94-year-old neighbor of his made daily trips to the grocery store on foot, using her walker, even in winter. The writer found himself marveling at the woman's determination.

"I wake up with a hangnail and my day is ruined," says Dempsey, who's 47. "And here's this 94-year-old woman trudging through a foot of snow to go to the market."

Several months later, he was watching the "Pine Barrens" episode of "The Sopranos," in which an injured Russian escapes execution by mobsters. A line in the script compares the man to the famously hard-to-kill Rasputin. "Rasputin as a symbol of getting on with life - life when it's being taken away from you - I thought that was interesting," Dempsey recalls.

That image of perseverance began to dovetail in his mind with the show-must-go-on philosophy of theater itself. Further spurred by his readings in Russian literature, Dempsey conceived of the scrappy thespian characters in "Brother Russia" who are prone to dramatizing Chekhov and Tolstoy on a bare-bones budget in a fairy-tale-haunted world.

Rowe was keen on the concept, which conjured up the sounds of "progressive rock with a little bit of Rachmaninoff thrown in," as the 55-year-old composer puts it. But the duo despaired of interesting commercial producers in such an offbeat idea, so they relegated it to the back burner. Then Schaeffer, eager to lure the partners back to Signature, offered to mount any musical they devised.

"You don't get offers like that every day," Dempsey points out.

Plunging into the Russia project, the two New Yorkers revived a favorite tactic: recording demos of new songs with friends as vocalists. Such demos provide perspective - they're a way "to get our [own] voices out of the mix," Rowe says - but they had previously been private resources.

But Schaeffer, who is directing "Brother Russia," saw an outreach opportunity. After all, theatergoers these days are "not always as willing to take as many chances as they were before, because of the economy," Schaeffer notes. Supplying an upfront music sample seemed a way to build enthusiasm for a show that was an unknown quantity, lacking the kind of familiar source material (the '80s tunes in "Rock of Ages" or the movie-derived plot of Broadway's upcoming "Ghost: The Musical") that can be seen as an audience draw.

There was no time to record advance tracks with the real "Brother Russia" cast; rehearsal minutes were too precious. And besides, Schaeffer thought the "rawness" of the demos might excite potential ticket buyers, who would feel included in a bold artistic gamble.

Schaeffer, Dempsey and Rowe chose songs with stand-alone potential: the gospel-flavored anthem "Siberia," the Slavic music-hall ditty "Vodka" and "Child of the Wood," a plaintive incantation that veers "to a rock 'Carmina Burana' place," in Rowe's words. Necessary permissions obtained, the demo versions were readied for an e-mail blast. (Signature also distributed more than 300 CDs of "Brother Russia" songs to patrons of the theater's recent "Hairspray" and current "Really Really" productions.)

Shortly before the campaign kicked off, Rowe felt "crazy nervous about it." After all, integrating a musical's songs with its book has been an industry goal at least since 1943's "Oklahoma!" Disseminating new numbers without context would seem to flout that tradition.

"It's like sending a child out and saying, 'Now let the world decide what they think of the child,' " Rowe said.

Initial responses came back positive. After the drop of the first song - the rock-and-roll opener, "Brother Russia Presents"- box office calls and ticket sales spiked, Signature reports.

If all goes well, the experiment will enhance the chances of a musical that, Dempsey wants to stress, is no Rasputin bio-drama. "It's a rollicking, raucous show - a fun show," he says. "It has very little relationship to history."