March 22, 2012 | by Patrick Folliard
Artistic adjustments

‘Brother Russia’
Through April 15
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington
703-573-SEAT

Doug Kreeger, center, as Grigori in Signature’s ‘Brother Russia.’ Also seen from left are Stephen Gregory Smith, Erin Driscoll, Russell Sunday and Rachel Zampelli. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy Signature)

 

Advanced word on Signature Theatre’s world premiere production of “Brother Russia” promised the story of Rasputin set to music. If you’re expecting a faithful retelling of the mad monk’s rise from backwater Serbian peasant to Russian Imperial Court favorite, don’t. The show’s creators — musical team Dana Rowe (music) and John Dempsey (book and lyrics) — have toyed widely with the facts and invented something entirely new.

Propelled by a hard-driving rock score, “Brother Russia” is a play within a play. The action begins with a ragtag troupe of sometime post-Glasnost Russian actors gathering to perform their next show. The itinerant company’s leader, Brother Russia (John Lescault), suggests they tell his story, the story of Rasputin. Of course, he couldn’t possibly be the real Rasputin — though old, he’s not nearly old enough, and besides Rasputin’s murdered corpse was dragged from the Neva River in 1916. Still, the actors press on. Parts are assigned, costumes donned and places taken.

Visibly seated throughout the musical in a big wooden wheelchair, wisecracking Brother Russia watches things unfold from the sidelines. Family tragedy prompts young Rasputin (a bearded Doug Kreeger) to embark on his quixotic journey (lucidly staged by Signature’s gay artistic director Eric Schaeffer). Along the way a horny witch (Rachel Zampelli) claims his soul. Whether it’s her magic, or Rasputin’s later apprenticeship with a pair of faith-healing hucksters (Kevin McAllister and Christopher Mueller) that primes him for the big time is unclear. Once in St. Petersburg, Rasputin vaults to in-house healer to the young, hemophilic Tsarevich and wins inordinate influence with the boy’s parents, Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra. Not surprisingly, court insiders grow jealous, particularly Prince Felix Yusupov (gay in real life, and here played by Stephen Gregory Smith as a totally louche, glam rock queen strutting in impossibly high red heels), and trouble ensues.

But what would a musical be without a love story? “Brother Russia” defies history by portraying Rasputin and the Tsar’s youngest daughter, the fabled Anastasia (played by the talented and always excellent Natascia Diaz), as a love match. Of course this never happened. Anastasia was a small child when womanizing Rasputin arrived at court. Ordinarily, reshuffling history isn’t a big deal, but with this shows it proves a recurring distraction.

Still, there are things to like. Kreeger, who is gay, is fully committed to the role. He’s terrific and his vocals are gorgeous whether sung sweetly (“The Tsarevich’s Lullaby”) or powerfully (“I Serve No Man”). Other highlights include Amy McWilliams’ turn as the opium smoking (more artistic license), fabulous headdress-wearing Tsarina; and Tracy Lynn Olivera’s number, a bawdily delivered drinking song titled “Vodka.”

Misha Kachman’s impressive set is an expansive stage of rough planks beneath strings of colored lights. In the background are tattered curtains, a depilated caravan and a battered steamer trunk. Costume designer Kathleen Geldard imagines the troupe as sexy and punk expect for Brother Russia who’s dressed as an aging hippie activist in an army surplus coat dotted with political buttons, Birkenstocks and a Che Guevara T-shirt.

In the end, Brother Russia is called out on his historical inaccuracies by the company’s irate manager (Russell Sunday). Ah ha, so this is where everything will make sense, right? Unfortunately, what feels like a tacked-on explanation is unsatisfying. Evidently, this is Brother Russia’s reality, and his proof of the eternal power of theater and the Russian spirit … or something.

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