Unless you have been living under a rock, you know the American musical has been redefined and re-colored by the talented Lin-Manuel Miranda and the phenomenon of Hamilton. Well, Danny Baird, who in energy and looks could be fronting a boy band, and four White chicks have just seized another piece of historical real estate – the last days of imperial Russia – and given it a delightful modern twist. Their Romanov comes up fresh, smart, with plenty of attitude and just out there enough to be fabulously Fringe. Totally.
You know the Romanovs. They were the Tsar and family members who fell victims to the surge and purge of the Russian Revolution.The family including four girl children and the heir, a young hemophiliac, were rounded up and shot. Tragic. No, they were the snotty rich, so out of touch with their subjects, they needed to be pulled down from their high horses where they were living off the blood and sweat of the starving lower class. Who writes the history?
Baird and Meghan Stanton, co-creators of the book and lyrics, make a convincing case that the young Romanovs were both victims and privileged perpetrators of the downfall of Russia’s last dynasty. They start out like bitching brats, and the modern parallel to celebrity darlings is clear – there is way too much money there. But there is a switch, artfully created, when the five young Romanovs retell the final hours of their lives that is both grisly and emotionally compelling.
The update works so well, my companions and I wanted to whistle and shout, “Hey guys, you got a music video here. And media buzz to spare. Move over Kardashians, bring on the Romanovs!” And maybe Kanye West could come in for an added cameo as Rasputin!
Baird performs the role of the well-pedigreed Alexei, the “little brother.” He is terrific. He carries off being both completely daffy and cynically in touch with the way things worked in Russia. He and his sisters are dead after all, they remind us, and speaking from beyond the grave.
Written by Danny Baird and Meghan Stanton
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Allie O’Donnell, Meghan Stanton, Alicia Osborn, and Catherine Purcell play the sisters, including the one we know best as Anastasia, she, who many believed for years, got away. (There are even White Russians floating around today, most of them as ghostly and cobwebby as Dickens’ Miss Haversham, claiming tsarist blood. They gather at the Cosmos Club in Washington for their annual ball.)
But these would-be Romanov girls have shaken off any nostalgic cobwebs and they make the tiny Flashpoint performance place jump. Within a minute in their opening song, “We are Russia,” I’m sitting up and smiling. They perform with great confidence, and put “pow” into powerful.
Each of the cast members has a highlight number, and, for the sisters, that gives them just enough character color to matter. The piece isn’t going for depth, and so there is not a lot of dimension in the characters. But like all music awards ceremonies, at Fringe no one wants much of that anyway. Each member of the cast attacks the microphone and goes for it in their solos. The songs often bring in the others for some great harmonies. The girls do the runway strut, flip their tresses, wriggle and gesture through the choreography, and put across the music with authority.
The music blends rap and pop. While the sound balance of the technical equipment didn’t always put across the fast lyrics of Baird’s rapping, this composer is clearly a serious talent. The music is catchy, and the lyrics are smart. One of the lines sums up their approach: it “would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.” And despite all the family’s highs and lows, including the constant threat of their fragile brother dying, the sisters’ lives were all about “keeping up appearances.” The tone of cynicism feels very hip.
And along the way, we get a great history lesson. We’re reminded their ancestors included Queen Victoria, who married off her daughters and consolidated kingdoms across Europe. Sadly, she also passed on the gene of hemophilia to male descendants. The work suggests that the family was therefore multi-lingual and multi-national more than pure Russian.
As one who sees a lot of Fringe shows of various degrees of performance competence, I can tell you, this show has great entertainment value. What they set out to do they have done with high marks. Five stars indeed!
Romanov. Music by Danny Baird. Book & Libretto by Danny Baird and Meghan Stanton. Directed by Meghan Stanton. Lighting by Rob Silar. Projections by Kelly Colburn. Featuring Danny Baird, Allie O’Donnell, Meghan Stanton, Alicia Osborn, and Catherine Purcell. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Time: 60 minutes