The opening number of this resurrected musical from the late Elizabeth Swados is so lively and inviting that it reminded me of “Comedy Tonight” in “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum” –
Something for everyone—a comedy tonight!
— although the characters are dead Russian poets and their song might as well be called Poetry Tonight. It is 1912, and these avant-garde artists hang out in a café called The Stray Dog in St. Petersburg.
Welcome to the Stray Dog
Café to the curious
(Czar) Nicholas would be furious
But that does not worry us
“There are no revolutionaries here at The Stray Dog. Only poets,” proclaims Boris Pronin (1875-1946), portrayed by the very unBoris-like Starr Busby, who serves as our most entertaining host and narrator. “Ah, but what poets!” she exclaims. “Artists and whores everyone! The best, the brightest, and the most beautiful poets in [foul epithet] Russia.”
There is much that is appealing in “The Beautiful Lady,” not least Liz Swados’ terrific score. There is also something appalling in the play — what happened to most of these historical figures after the Russian Revolution. Does “The Beautiful Lady” have something for everyone? Thanks to the score, Anne Bogart’s engaging, energetic direction, and some memorable performances, the show rewards a broader audience than might normally be drawn to ninety minutes of poets and poetry.
Boris introduces the poets one by one, some with still-familiar names (at least to poetry lovers), most with colorful pasts and bloody futures. Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) married three times, one wife American dancer Isadora Duncan, another Tolstoy’s granddaughter. He hanged himself, leaving a last poem written in his own blood.
“I told you there was no ink in the room, Boris,” Sergei (Andrew Polec) says.
Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), Boris tells us, “wrote FIVE notebooks of poems. But they were never published.”
“They were published in America, Boris, in New York City,” Mandelstam (Henry Stram) corrects him.
“That’s true,” Boris concedes. “Seventeen years after you died on your way to a labor camp in Siberia.”
In dialogue, narrative and song, we glimpse the poets’ biographies and the surreal and horrid history that they lived through. Boris tells a Soviet-era joke of a young man sent to the prison island of Sakhalin for ten years: “’What did you do?’ ‘Nothing,’ says the young man. The guard laughs. ‘That’s a lie. For doing nothing you only get five years.’”
“The Beautiful Lady” is guided by such gallows humor: If the poets’ times are dark and demises bleak, the production is anything but downbeat. The actors keep us busy, handing around an album for us to sign, party hats to wear — not on our heads, “on your noses” — a bucket in which to donate dollars — “no change” (the money going to Razom on behalf of Ukraine.) They ask us to bark like dogs and caw like birds.
Such playful audience interaction and a lack of traditional plot are not all that set “The Beautiful Lady” apart from a conventional musical. The actors, as their characters, recite fourteen Russian poems, translated into English by the late Paul Schmidt. The title of the show comes from the eight hundred poems that Alexander Blok (1880-1921) wrote to an unnamed Beautiful Lady; George Abud, who portrays Biok, stands out for the clear, resonant, expressive voice with which he recites the man’s poetry.
The poets’ words also make their way into many of Swados’ 18 songs, which toggle between her own lyrics and translations of Russian verses. “The Beautiful Lady” is also the refrain of a song entitled “Hey Isadora,” a gorgeous ballad that’s a highlight of the show, with Andrew Polec as Sergei singing in tribute to his wife:
My lady made of silk and of sighs,
My lady full of laughs and goodbyes.
My lady of poems and handkerchiefs
My lady of freedom
My beautiful lady.
Elizabeth Swados, who died in 2016 at the age of 64, is best known for the 1978 Broadway musical Runaways, for which she received Tony nominations as composer, librettist, director and choreographer. Her artistic life was prodigious and wide-ranging, and her musical tastes eclectic – and this is reflected in the score for “The Beautiful Lady.” There are tunes inflected by Russian folk music, bass-based jazz, fife and drum and Brechtian anthems. Starr sings the rousing, overwhelming (and a tad overbearing) “A Change Shall Come”:
We shall bear the wrath
This time has wrought
We shall be ever faithful,
Loving to our mother tongue,
We shall shout beneath the new day’s sun.
Ashley Pérez Flanagan as Marina Tsvetaeva sings a bouncy, vaudeville-like ditty “Take Me To Paris”
Oh, take me to Paris.
Take me from Petersburg to Paris.
i want to see a real cabaret.
Call a chicken “un poulet.”
Sing all those beautiful ballads
Eat paté. say “je suis malade.”
I can’t guarantee that any of these tunes are earworms. “The Beautiful Lady” might not put a priority on “hummable,” like much of Sondheim. Like Sondheim, Swados was an astonishing talent. What may be most astonishing about “The Beautiful Lady” is that Swados wrote it in 1984, and, although it was produced in 1985 in Washington D.C., where it won the first annual Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play, as well as in Los Angeles, California, this production is the first time New Yorkers have had a chance — the privilege — to see it.
La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater through May 28
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $40. Students/Seniors: $35
Music and Lyrics by Elizabeth Swados
Original Book by Elizabeth Swados and Paul Schmidt
Directed by Anne Bogart Book adapted by Jocelyn Clarke
Orchestrations by Kris Kukul Translations by Paul Schmidt
Scenic design by Andromache Chalfant, lighting design by Brian H. Scott, sound design by Charles Coes, costume design by Gabriel Berry
Cast: Starr Busby as Boris Pronin, Henry Stram as Osip Mandelstam, Kate Fuglei as Anna Akhmatova: Ashley Pérez Flanagan as Marina Tsvetaeva, George Abud as Alexander Blok, Djoré Nance as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Tom Nelix as Velimir Khlebnikov, Andrew Polec as Sergei Yesenin, Paula Gaudier, Jacob Louchheim, RED, Maya Sharpe