Last week I had a fun opportunity to get a glimpse of the Signature Theater’s upcoming show “Brother Russia.” One of my favorite things about Signature Theater is their willingness, or more accurately, insistence, on helping to develop original works for the stage. This year they’ve embraced that aesthetic by producing four new original works for the stage of which “Brother Russia” is the last. The show was initially described as a rock musical based on the retelling of Rasputin’s life. Now any show based on the ‘mad monk’ is immediately going to intrigue me; I’m really developing a taste for musicals with an edge/sharp point of view and you can’t deal with Rasputin without dealing with the darker side human nature.
The preview not only included seeing a few of the songs performed but also getting to hear from the director, Eric Schaffer, the writer and composer of the show, John Dempsey and Dana Rowe, as well as the set designer, costumer, musical director and choreographer about how they’re developing the show. Out of the experience the one thing that really blew me away is that they’re putting this rather ambitious show together in three weeks of rehearsals. Twenty-one days. It can take me 21 days to plan a dinner party! Not including the musical numbers! The show has not had a real reading or a workshop during the writing process so in twenty one days the cast is learning the songs, dialog, choreography, blocking, and musical arrangements all while simultaneously the writers and director are refining, rewriting and trying to perfect the show. I don’t really have a good perspective on how unusual this is but it seems rather extra ordinary to me.
That being said, the cast of mostly Signature Theater veterans had been in rehearsals less than a week at the time of the preview. The plot is constructed around the tried and true theatrical story telling trope of a play within a play. The show opens near modern day Omsk (Russia) where a down and out acting troupe, for one evening, changes their standard repertoire of Russian classics to tell the life story of their leader who just happens to be/or believes himself to be the immortal Rasputin. The entire cast is in the un-enviable position of playing two characters, the character they play as well as the character their character plays. Actually make that three parts, they’re also going to be their own stage hands.
The writers described the show as a ‘rock opera’ as there is very little spoken dialog in the show; the songs are the driving force of the narrative. The cast performed three songs from the show, the opening number “Brother Russia Presents,“ “Dolgaya River” and “Siberia.” They were all very good but I found the latter two songs quite moving. At the time of the rehearsal there was something like 35-40 songs in the show, which makes me a little nervous. I think one of the most difficult aspects of the creative process is editing but they are claiming that the show should run a pretty standard 2-1/2 hours. Regardless, the sneak peak served its purpose because it really whetted my appetite to see the final product. Here are a couple of audio files of the first two songs. They will be releasing the third song as well, I’ll post that when it’s available.
The show starts previews March 6th, stay tuned for a full review.