Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia is to be commended for the commitment they have made in the 2011-2012 season to producing new work. For audiences that enjoy being among the first to see a show and, perhaps, be able to see that show shaped and change in subsequent productions, this can be an exciting experience. Unfortunately, not every show is one or two steps away from transferring to Broadway. This is not a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind when seeing the birth pangs of theatrical babies. Unless there has been a lot of press put out by the producing theater company, you may not have a clue what to expect when you purchase your ticket. There is the danger that you might feel that your money has been wasted if you take a chance on a an unknown product.
This is not the case with Brother Russia, a new musical about Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, one of the most infamous figures of world history. The new musical, with book and lyrics by John Dempsey and music by Dana Rowe, shows quite a bit of promise. Many of the songs in the score are quite terrific and help to enhance the story. The acting company is enthusiastic and there are some wonderful passionate performances. The problem lies with parts of the script and some of that is the framework for the story.
Brother Russia is a contemporary rock musical. The story is framed in a familiar way by having an edgy Bohemian-style theater company tell the story (see Pippin). The title character of Brother Russia (John Lescault) convinces the company to put on a performance of the life of Rasputin. Brother Russia insists that the play is the true story of his own life. The company reluctantly agrees. It is a fanciful version of Rasputin's life that bears only nominal resemblance to the actual history (again, reference Pippin). During the telling of the story there are several breaks in the action some of which enhance the story of the Brother Russia character and others that just seem to grind the action of the play to a halt. There is a disconnect in the narration as Brother Russia breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience and then a scene or two later there will be a line stating that the actors are performing for an empty space. The play reaches an emotional climax at the height of the Russian Revolution and the downfall of Rasputin and then seems to run out of steam. The play ends not so much because the story is over, but as if the script ran out of ideas.
There are some diction issues with the full cast numbers that make it difficult to understand those lyrics. Yet, there are notable performances. Rachel Zampell is sensual and menacing as the Witch in her song Chid of the Wood. Tracy Lynn Olivera leads a rousing ensemble in Vodka. Amy McWilliams is haunting as the desperate Tsarina Alexandra and she is particularly poignant in the duet Matryoshka.
John Lescault overcomes the bizarre costuming he wears to be our enigmatic narrator, Brother Russia. As the young man he conscripts to portray Grigori Doug Kreeger has a clear rock tenor that tests the limits of the sound system and has a magnetic personality that, while not on the legendary Rasputin's own scale, works for this production. As the gypsy Sofya who reluctantly plays the gentle Grand Duchess Anastasia, Natascia Diaz gives a mesmerizing performance particularly in her songs Siberia, Elsewhere and in the love duet with Grigori, I Belong To You.
The costumes by Kathleen Geldard and makeup worn by the actors feel edgy for arts sake rather than feeling organic from the material of the play. Music direction by Gabriel Mangiante is firm despite the few enunciation difficulties. Eric Schaeffer has directed this fledging show with a firm hand which helps it overcome most of the script problems.
Brother Russia will be performed in The Max theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia through April 15, 2012. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.signature-theatre.org.