A Night in the Kremlin
nytheatre.com review by E. Michael Lockley
July 17, 2009
A Night in the Kremlin is a wonderfully imaginative look at what happens when Harpo Marx travels to Moscow in 1933 amidst the building of the Soviet Union's "Utopia." Once Harpo arrives he receives an interpreter, Valentina, and he befriends the Foreign Diplomat's English wife, Ivy. After the two women take him to an audition at the Chekhov Theater (a hilarious moment), Valentina breaks down with unbearable grief. She shares with Harpo and Ivy that her boyfriend, Igor, is going to have to stand before the Party Committee to be judged and that it is likely he may be sent away. After getting all the details Harpo and Ivy both decide that Igor is being treated unfairly and that they will do whatever it takes to ensure that Valentina and Igor can live together without corrupt politics. So they go to Stalin!
Stalin is deeply concerned with maintaining the Soviet Union and ensuring that it is for the working people. It is as he receives the good news that the US is recognizing the USSR, that he encounters Harpo and Ivy. Unaware of the duo's mission to challenge the Party Committee's decision, Stalin starts to fall in love with Ivy. In turn, Ivy, uses her feminine ways to try to sway Stalin to reverse the committee's eventual decision to send Igor away. Meanwhile Harpo attempts to use his comedic antics to trick and confuse Stalin into signing official papers to release Igor. This continues through the second act and after lots of hijinks and some good ol' American intervention, the eventual conclusion is kinda shaky—but the journey to get there is a lot of fun.
This musical—yes, MUSICAL—by Bernard Besserglik (book) and Bob Barton (lyrics, music) is really quite enjoyable. Although it would be very easy to assume that a musical about the Soviet Union might be dark, the musical numbers are primarily light and fun. Musical numbers such as, "You Gotta Be Hard" show Stalin convincing his crew to toughen up, but the music and antics on stage result in a laughable look at the "hard life" of the leaders of the USSR. Then there are sweet love songs such as "Heading for a Brave New World" where Ivy and her diplomat husband Litvinov go down memory lane and remember when they first met. Stalin's songs, "I Died With You" and "Somebody Stop Me," are the two darkest moments of the play and for me they felt most out of place. While I'm certain they were attempts to show Stalin's struggle within himself and his past, most of that was clear in the story and didn't require a song.
The actors really bring to life the world of the play. Standout performances by Briana Layon (Valentina), Angus Hepburn (Stalin), and Jeff Essex (Harpo) truly make the show all the more enjoyable. It is always great to see actors on stage making choices and having fun. And director Cosmin Chivu really showcases a great ability to diversify the use of set pieces, props and even his cast. Given the minimal set it was thrilling to see characters at a table that then became a chest, and even eventually became a train car. Some of the actors get a chance to play multiple characters, and in one scene in particular a prop piece is used in three different ways. The strengths of this musical are the energetic cast, the dynamic choices of the director and the absurdity of watching Harpo Marx and Joseph Stalin share a musical number. Overall a great time, I had a wonderful night at the Kremlin!