BWW Reviews: TSARINA The Musical - Full of Potential

Tsarina The Musical
book, music & lyrics by Deborah Johnson
directed by Joshua Finkel
Grove Theatre, Upland
closed, after a successful two-weekend run Sept 16-25

I usually choose not to review workshop productions, but, in regard to Deborah Johnson's Tsarina, breaking the rule proved worthwhile. The show has such great potential. It's incredible to think that other composers have not seized the opportunity to write a musical play about this most vibrant time frame of Russian history culminating in the Bolshevik revolution and in 1917 the downfall of Nicholas (Patrick Dillon Curry) and Alexandra (Kelly Derouin), the last czars in Russia.

Nicholas was not the strong leader that was characteristic of his father, Tsar Gregory Romanov (BrIan Brown) and others in the Romanov lineage. In fact, his weak nature made his rule a faulty one, with Alexandra and others of his cabinet like Konstantyn (Robert Moon) assuming greater responsibility. Holy men like Grigori Rasputin (Michael Torrenueva) usurped power within as well, making gravely unwise decisions that cost the aristocracy its leverage.

Johnson's challenge was to cover a vast amount of time from 1889 when Nicky and Alex first fell in love to their demise in 1917; quite a lot of territory for a two to two and a half hour play! But she succeeded admirably! With simplistic staging rotating movable platforms (designed by Michael Hoffman) to indicate changes in time and space, scenes transformed quickly and with ease. Director Joshua Finkel also made efficient use of time, allowing scenes to play out with members of the royal cabinet in the boxes above stage left and right. Another wise decision was to keep the crowds of peasants to a paltry number, letting traffic flow smoothly around the stage.

The cast assembled were first-rate. As Nicholas and Alexandra, Curry and Derouin were quite remarkable, as they not only made the age transformation over 30 years seem believable, but managed to put their own mark on the characters. Also solid were Brown in several characters, Moon, Valerie Rose Lohman as daughter Tatiana, Laura Anderson as Alexandra's servant Oksana, Cindy Clark as Queen Victoria, Alexandra's grandmother and Deborah Lederer stealing her scenes deliciously as the jilted Helene of France.

Kevin Remington did fine work choreographing the ensemble as needed. Kim Overton designed the excellent costumes. Johnson's richly beautiful score surely captures the flavor of Russia in the late 19th, early 20th centuries and includes the truly memorable melodies "If Only You Believe", the deftly comedic "Jilted" and the gorgeous anthem "Everywhere". As to the book, it works well for the most part, but I would like to see a couple of adjustments. I never got a sense of real deceit from Rasputin's character, so some kind of devilish scene is in order for him and also a scene of more in-depth conflict for Nicholas in his later years. He is obviously still faltering as a leader, and the audience needs to see internal strife that is now somewhat glossed over.

Tsarina is a beautiful love story set amidst the turmoil of a changing Russia, and Deborah Johnson has crafted a superlatively skilled book musical, which, I hope, will not be discarded. It has definite possibilities for a larger scale production in a full Equity house.

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From This Author Don Grigware

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