Sunday evening, Arlington’s Signature Theatre revealed the world premiere of Brother Russia, a new rock musical by the creative team of John Dempsey and Dana Rowe. Chock full of interesting characters and loaded with catchy music, Brother Russia is top-notch musical theater—until its wordy, misconceived final moments bring the show back down to earth with a resounding thud.
Brother Russia re-imagines the colorful life and very strange times of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, the “mad monk” of Russia. His dramatic rise and epic fall arguably contributed in a major way to the destruction of the Romanov dynasty in the early 20th century.
For those unfamiliar with the story (or the History Channel’s sensationalized riffs on it), Grigory Rasputin was a monk of dubious morality hailing, literally, from the desolate tundra of Siberia. Due to a bizarre sequence of events, Rasputin managed to insinuate himself into the court of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra where he somehow restored the couple’s young prince and heir—a hemophiliac—to health. But during his long stay in the court, his sexual escapades become notorious, earning him the enmity of Nicholas’ courtiers who ultimately kill him. Several times.
Brother Russia’s authors veer from the historical script by wrapping their version of Rasputin’s history into the time-honored play-within-a-play format.
As the show opens, we’re introduced to a ragtag wandering theater troupe that’s set up its latest performance space in what Signature describes as “a desolate potato field north of Omsk” where the players perform “rock-fueled adaptations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.” We meet this troupe on a night when their ebullient, wheelchair-bound producer, director, and trail boss, aka “Brother Russia,” is opening a new show that presents his own strange vision of Rasputin’s bio.
Brother Russia’s players pick up the thread, and a wild, fanciful riff on Rasputin’s story ensues. We follow the monk from his traumatic early childhood in Siberia, to his experiences as a raffish, traveling monk, to his concluding arc of triumph, defeat, victory, and assassination (more or less) in and about the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.
As with many historical adaptations, this one takes some liberties, attributing Rasputin’s secret powers to his close encounter with the Russian witch Baba Yaga, and inventing an affair with young Princess Alexandra. But it’s all in good fun for those who don’t mind their history wrapped in a bit of fantasy.
The star of Brother Russia is Doug Kreeger, who portrays the dual characters of Sasha (the player) and Grigori Rasputin (the historical character). Trim and energetic, he embodies the bold and increasingly crazed monk as he sets out on his monomaniacal mission to rule the Winter Palace and the world. As a vocalist, Kreeger wraps himself around every song and his clear, nuanced, impassioned delivery is a consistent highlight of this production.
Kreeger’s showiest solo turns include “Dolgaya River,” and “I Serve No Man,” but he also shines brightly in the show’s many ensemble numbers.
Not taking a back seat to Kreeger’s stellar performance is Natascia Diaz. She portrays the gypsy player Sofya as well as Princess Anastasia. Her enticing appearance and questing soul appeal immensely to the love- and approval-starved Rasputin. Their torrid, forbidden affair—albeit wrapped in the context of this play—is what gives this production its powerful romantic chemistry.
An added plus: like Kreeger, Diaz also knows how to deliver a song. One of the frequent problems with rock music—and rock musicals—is that emotions tend to be expressed by simply jacking up the volume. Both Kreeger and Diaz transcend such shallow limitations. It’s particularly apparent in those intimate solo and duet moments when they shut out the chaotic world and focus only on each other.
Diaz is at the top of her game in the punchy “Siberia,” as well as in the quieter lament, “Elsewhere.” She and Kreeger are radiant in their moving duets “Little Finch, Little Bear,” “The Room Above the Tavern,” and “I Belong To You.”
Brother Russia’s supporting cast turns in some classy work on its own.
Rachel Zampelli is sexy and scary as Yana/Baba Yaga, especially when delivering her show-stopping “Child of the Wood” in the show’s early innings. Russell Sunday is perfect as the imperious yet terminally confused and always angry Viktor/Nicholas. Amy McWilliams is at once brittle, fragile, and sympathetic as the conflicted Lyubov/Alexandra.
The remaining players turn in fine performances as well, including Kevin McAllister (Anton/Dmitri), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Natalia/Zoya), Christopher Mueller (Mikhail/Gapon), Stephen Gregory Smith (Sergei/Felix), and Erin Driscoll (Bella/Dominika).
The show’s best ensemble numbers include “This Is What You Call the Good Life,” and “The Great War,” which hearkens back to the good old days of Country Joe and the Fish.
Hanging about the show’s periphery while providing its propulsive drive is the enigmatic figure of Brother Russia himself. He seems to be a bizarre combination of Viet Nam war protestor, 1970s late-night TV horror movie host, and PT Barnum.
Boisterously portrayed by John Lescault, Brother Russia runs the company, even though he’s confined to his wheelchair. Imperious and optimistic, he’s oddly passionate about his new Rasputin show in spite of evidence that it’s bombing in Omsk. Perhaps the reason why is his claim—spoiler alert—to actually BE Grigory Rasputin, having somehow survived even his final assassination while assuming the lifespan of Dracula.
Nice idea. But taking it too far leads to the premature death of this production.
Picture it: Suddenly, as we’re waiting for the big finale we’ve been warmed up to expect, the music falls nearly silent and we’re treated to an excruciating lecture by Brother Russia on the meaning of life and history, the significance of art, and the paradox of time and timelessness. Sofya jumps in to help. It’s right out of Freshman Comp 101.
Then Brother Russia appears to have breathed his last. But, as his players begin to mourn, and as the audience breathes a sigh of relief, he revives again to continue the lecture. It’s a bit like the preposterous ending of certain operas where the hero, having breathed his last, suddenly revives, treating us another full-throated but preposterous aria.
What’s clear is that, having arrived at a climax in the action, neither Dempsey nor Rowe had really resolved how to end it. This ending just seems tacked on and it’s a real letdown. Fortunately, such things can be fixed.
Our advice: feel free to enjoy what’s mostly a nifty show; Brother Russia is highly inventive and a great deal of fun. Just ignore the last ten minutes.
Book and lyrics by John Dempsey
Music by Dana Rowe
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Music direction by Gabriel Mangiante
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
- Diane Wilshere . AccidentalThespian
- Gail Choochan . Fredericksburg.com
- Jonathan Padget . Metro Weekly
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Kyle Osborne . Examiner.com
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
Jordan Wright . Alexandria Times
- Trey Graham . City Paper
Don . WeLove DC
Jeanne Theismann . Connection
Rachel Eisley . BrightestYoungThings
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Jennifer Perry . MDTheatreGuide
- Elliot Lanes . DCMetroTheaterArts