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Rocky Khorosho*

Neil McGowan reviews DRACULA – the latest in the wave of big-budget musicals to open in Moscow.


 

One of the paradoxes when I lived in London was that my visiting friends from Russia always wanted to make "a London musical" one of the high-points of their trip – yet in a country where musical and dancing talent comes regrettably cheap and plentiful, there were no shows of this kind to see. The situation had not always been thus –pre-Revolutionary Petersburg was almost notorious for its exotic and elaborate cabaret shows, and in that bizarre brief flowering between the Revolution in 1917 and Lenin’s death in 1924, Mayakovsky and others oversaw all kinds of new and interesting theatrical entertainments – of which Shostakovich’s "Nose" and "Lady Macbeth" are rightfully part. However, Stalin’s cultural crackdown in the 30’s abruptly halted such experiments, and turgid productions of "the classics" became the standard repertoire – on the basis that they were "morally improving". New work in opera and ballet was very limited in both scope and extent – subject-matter was either "so long ago that it cannot be controversial" such as Khatchachurian’s "Gayana", classic works of literature like Schiller’s "The Robbers" (made into a ballet by Shostakovich’s nemesis Schedrin, a talentless yes-man who became President of the Union of Soviet Composers for turning-out rubbish and turning-in his contemporaries), or even worse soviet-realist pot-boilers like "Cement" – which is, yes, about a successful soviet attempt to beat the world cement-mixing record. However, nothing resembling a musical penetrated the censorship system, and even the term "myuzikl" itself has had to be russified from the English word.

One of the first to break this bar was the enterprising former rock-musician turned entrepreneur Stas Namin. Unfortunately Namin’s efforts to bring western popular culture to Russia usually result in him being pilloried by the Russians as a scruffy and decadent tool of the West, whilst simultaneously being sued for copyright and rights infringements by the Western operations involved – most notoriously when he acquired an old café in Culture Park (which is the name by which "Gorky Park" is really known in Moscow) and titled it "The Hard Rock Café". The writs flew thicker than the milkshakes. Not deterred, Stas has now installed a tiny theatre on his premises, where he has been presenting entirely unauthorised versions of "Hair", "Godspell", and even one called "Jesus-Christus – Superzvezda!" which hardly needs translating. Really Useful are either more tolerant than Hard Rock, or have sloppier lawyers, and these shows (with a band of three, usually featuring Stas himself) are still showing to a smallish walk-in audience. Although not quite 40w-bulb, they’re not far off – but they carved a niche for which Stas will, as ever, fail to get any credit. The "Green Theatre" experiments highlighted a problem, though – musicals need proper venues, and the soviet legacy provided none.

The next venture into musicals came at the opposite end of the scene to Stas Namin’s tent in Gorky Park, with the unlikely participation of the Moscow Operetta – and a new phenomenon, an all-Russian musical "Metro". Although the Operetta was best known for well-worn soviet productions of high-camp operetta, it did make sense – a troupe accustomed to doing both Song and Dance, with a largish decent theatre capable of at least reasonable costumes. The idea was not connected with any kind of patriotic feelings, or rejection of the West – it was sheer financial prudence. The thinking went that (i) a Russian audience would want something in Russian (ii) foreign shows would want to be paid huge performing rights for a Russian version (iii) a home-based show could be written to avoid expensive special effects. "Metro" remains, however, a rather obvious crib of "Miss Saigon" – rewriting the "Madam Butterfly" story in a Moscow setting, with the poor honest Russian girl who meets the American (of course…) businessman in the Moscow Metro, who promises her so much, but abandons her so heartlessly. The plotline is pure saccharine, but there are 1-2 reasonable musical numbers, and it remains in repertoire (alternating with Die Fledermaus, Der Land des Lachens, etc) selling well three years later.

However, the real watershed for Moscow musicals has been Nord-Ost – a new all-Russian piece, with a wholly new company, performing in an old variety theatre which was bought and entirely rebuilt especially to house the production. Running at slightly more than 3 hours it requires something approaching devotion from its audience to sit through it – and several entrepreneurs wisely bade their time and watched to see how such a piece would fare. The critics derided it, and Afisha – Moscow’s equivalent of Time Out – relegated it to the "Children’s" section. However, a truly massive billboard campaign for pre-sales, and TV advertising after the launch has succeeded in packing them in to a show in which, as the posters state, "a WW2 bomber lands on the stage - nightly". The real success is due to the book – which is an abridgement of the soviet-era "boy’s own" tale "The Two Captains", which is now a bit of rosy nostalgia for wealthy thirty-something Muscovites, who remember the TV version from their childhood. The plot is a straggly mess which doesn’t gain from having entirely incidental scenes inserted because they make good dance numbers, and the music is a series of shameless stylistic borrowings from Broadway and London shows. Moscow audiences have not, however, seen the originals, and are less likely to cry "crib!" when they see a "Moscow Morning" scene peopled by ragamuffin urchins in short pants, nor a central heroic older man who’s been whittled carefully out of Jean Valjean. The special effects are, however, easily worthy of London or Broadway – the railway station is great (with a moving train), the bomber is better than your worst expectations led you to believe, and the final scene when they find the wrecked ship in the glacier is genuinely moving in its gargantuan grandeur. However, even native Russian-speakers say that the dialogue is stilted formulaic tub-thumping stuff, and there are some stage depictions of some of the ex-USSR’s ethnic minorities (a cheating lazy Uzbek, and an appallingly degrading portrayal of Chukchi eskimos) which would be booed-off western stages. There is at least one good moment in the drama, although it comes as the cliffhanger to Act One, leaving Act Two as merely going through the motions. The young boy saved by Jean Valjean (oops, but you know who we mean) sees his benefactor enamoured of a beautiful widow – but she will not rewed, clinging to the belief that her husband was not truly lost on a doomed Arctic expedition. The young man (now in rugged flying-jacket) risks all to obtain papers which show that the expedition’s entire company perished as a result of a fraud in the equipment-purveying perpetrated by one of their number. At the great denouement, he summons the family to read the papers to them… only to discover that the man named as the fraudster who caused all their deaths was the missing husband. The wife commits suicide. A pity there’s still 1.5 hours of banal music to sit through, though.

All of which brings us to Dracula – said to be the most audaciously-expensive yet of Moscow’s musicals, and which opened this month at the Akademichesky Concert-Hall – the only venue in Moscow capable of staging it. In fact, the publicity is misleading – the show is neither new nor Russian, although it has a mostly-Russian cast. It’s a Slovak venture from Bratislava entrepreneur and choreographer Richard Gess, with music by Karel Sloboda. To call it a musical is also rather inaccurate – it’s more of a rock opera, and more of the latter than the former. All-sung with no spoken dialogue, Karel Sloboda’s music succeeds in being memorably tuneful when needed, and for the more menacing moments it conveys an appropriately dark timbre without resorting to clichés. There are a couple of hit numbers including "Maya lyubov" (My love) for Dracula and Adriana, and a good duet "All for you" for the Jester and Lorraine – with a little choral leitmotif for Dracula himself to illustrate his unchanging nature during the passing of the centuries. The plot takes a fresh look at the Dracula legend and owes nothing to Stoker’s novel at all. Instead, it uses the familiar device we know from The Tales of Hoffman and Blackadder – the central group of characters who remain unchanged despite time-settings that range across the ages. The three acts are Transylvania in 1608 (with much dastardly church-desecrating from the Count as Vlad The Impaler), then both London and Transylvania in the mid-C19th, and a final reckoning in a very odd-looking London (entirely peopled by leather-clad gangs of bikers) of our own era. The 1608 Jester has become the Count’s butler by the C19th, and by the C20th is a mad scientist who keeps his master’s failing body alive as he serves-out his never-ending sentence of unwanted immortality. There are, though, two leading ladies – his bride of 1608 dies in childbirth, but by the C19th he has found the Londoner Lorraine, who consents to marry him in his Transylvanian eyrie. The showdown in a Docklands Casino finally has the Count express remorse for his misdeeds, and as he is knifed by the bikers for trying to steal their girl, he greets death with a weary welcome. He is united in death with the faithful Lorraine.

The scenery is truly sumptuous, with 4-5 total changes of scene and period. There is also a smaller chamber for "internal" scenes which rises hydraulically out of the floor (from what must presumably be the theatre’s pit) and provides a constantly-changing stage setting. It must have cost billions, and the costumes are no less magnificent. In the title role is the distinguished Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bestschastny – an accomplished Don Giovanni at the National Opera in Kiev, whose operatic training serves him excellently. As the only "trained" singer in the cast, though, he was saddled with a headphone mike instead of a throat-mike – the only answer when the whole extravagant musical score is on playback. Anna Buturlina sang prettily as Adriana, wife of the C16th Count, and Alessya Manyakovskaya gave a super portrayal of Lorraine. Although Bestschastny’s lead role is a phenomenal and committed performance, the audience’s sympathy seemed to go elsewhere amongst the male roles, and Andrei Sokolov dazzled in the triple roles of Jester/Butler/Mad-Professor. His dancing is his strongest suit, gamely turning cartwheels to delight the young bride of his master. His singing is not bad either, but he sets himself an almost impossible task with two assumed voices as the Butler (grating) and the Professor (doddering) which make singing twice as hard for him. Miroslav Prokhaza was dashing as both Lorraine’s brother Stephen and "callously murdered Priest", and Valery Lerner sang well as Nick The Biker whilst riding a large Harley round the stage. The cleverest staging idea is the group of three dancers called "The Blood" in the program-notes, who ritually surround and engulf Dracula’s victims – neatly avoiding melodramatic ghastly murders. These were danced excellently by Nastya Lebeda, Alexei Kislyakov and Anton Domashov. In fact, vampirism is almost excised from the story – the only instance being when Dracula is nursing the dead body of his wife in his arms, and is surprised by the Jester. To the jester, it appears that the Count is biting the neck of the corpse, although "we know otherwise".

The recorded score is annoying, and prevents any kind of musical elasticity or suppleness from the performers. It is, however, something of a technical necessity in this piece, and perhaps a financial necessity too.

Following fresh on the heels of Nord-Ost, Dracula feeds on the appetite of the Moscow public for more and more musicals – both Notre-Dame de Paris and Chicago are set to open in the upcoming months, and will be reviewed here.

*khorosho="good"(Russian)

DRACULA is showing for an indefinite period at the Akademichesky Concert Hall, Leninsky Prospekt, Moscow (Metro: Leninsky Prospekt). NORD-OST has been showing for 6 months at the Nord-Ost Music-Theatre Project, Moscow and is currently booking to end-July. METRO is in the current repertoire of the Moscow Operetta. NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS opens in Moscow on 21st May, also at the Moscow Operetta. CHICAGO is receiving pre-opening publicity on chat-shows, but no venue or opening-date have formally been announced to date.


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