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Review - Iron Curtain: You Gotta Have Serdtse

By: Nov. 17, 2011
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Known primarily for their excellent work with the Prospect Theatre Company (of which she is Producing Artistic Director and he is Resident Writer), the husband and wife team of director/bookwriter Cara Reichel and composer/lyricist/bookwriter Peter Mills are responsible for some of the most exciting and innovative musical theatre New York has seen since the company was founded in 1998. And I daresay that with Iron Curtain, they and their inspired cohorts fully succeed in presenting one of their most difficult and risk-taking concepts yet; a fast, loud and funny 1950s-style musical comedy.

To tell the story of a down and out American songwriting team that finds unexpected success whipping up a propaganda musical for the Soviet Union, Reichel, who this time limits herself to producing and directing, and Mills, who only pens the lyrics for this outing, team up with composer Stephen Weiner and bookwriter Susan DiLallo to replicated the fun and frisky techniques mastered by George Abbott, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross in The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, two musicals which happen to be referenced in their show. Iron Curtain is jam packed with catchy showtunes, clever lyrics, socko gags and zesty staging, along with a little sex, a little romance, with an emphasis on the latter.

Dry and cynical Todd Alan Johnson and peppy and romantic David Perlman make for a loveable duo as composer Howard Katz and lyricist Murray Finkel (As in many of these backstage stories, no bookwriter is mentioned.), who have high hopes for their new musical about a baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil (They call it Faustball.) until they're told that Adler and Ross already have a similar project heading for Broadway. Howard's ever-supportive fiancée-to-be, Shirley (a darling Maria Couch), finds an ad in Variety from a Production Company looking for new writers, unaware that it's actually the Soviet Union's Ministry of Musical Persuasion setting up temporary quarters looking for Broadway types to fix their work-in-progress Oh, Kostroma!, a musical drama concerning the friction between farmers and factory workers.

The boys are kidnapped and sent to Moscow, where an optimistic Nikita Khrushchev (John Fico) promises, "We will bury you... in fan mail!" But Finkel and Katz are stuck for fresh ideas until they realize they can just give their Faustball script a coat of red paint and re-title it Damnable Yankees.

Jenn Gambatese's substantial musical comedy chops are put to great use as Masha, the sweet, modest actress who develops a diva streak when plucked from the chorus to be the star, but who softens when the smitten Murray sings of taking her back to America for a marriage-minded "Five Year Plan." Costume designer Sidney Shannon puts her in a tight shimmering gown and a platinum blonde wig for "That's Capital," a Damnable Yankees production number a la Marilyn Monroe vamping "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend"; a choreographic high point for Christine O'Grady, who also supplies a comical Harvest Moon Ballet and a grand Busby Berkeley-ish sequence utilizing a chorus of only eight.

Veteran Broadway character man Gordon Stanley shines as a musical theatre loving Communist official, with kooky support by Bobbi Kotula as a fetishy East German director and Aaron Ramey as a deadly Soviet.

Though Iron Curtain is a blast in the small basement space of the Baruch Performing Arts Center, this is a musical just bursting to be played on a Broadway-size scale. Remy Kurs' traditional period orchestrations for 8 pieces admirably give a taste of what the score could sound like with a pit full of musicians and the ensemble numbers just seem to be aching for more singers and dancers. I have a couple of quibbles; the way the story ends isn't totally satisfying and the curtain calls really should be capped with a final chorus of the catchy showbiz anthem, "If Not For Musicals," but Iron Curtain, even in its current miniature state, is a joyful night for those who appreciate musicals boasting fun songs, big laughs and a lot of heart.

Photos by Gerry Goodstein: Top: (standing) Robby Sharpe, Gordon Stanley and Aaron Ramey (sitting) Todd Alan Johnson and David Perlman (kneeling) Sara Brophy; Bottom: Sara Brophy, Robby Sharpe, James Patterson, Jenn Gambatese, Clint Carter and Ronn Burton.

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