nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
October 28, 2008
Originally on Broadway in 1963 (and starring Vivian Leigh), Tovarich is a musical adaptation of the 1930s play by Robert Sherwood and Jacques Deval. In this charming evening Musicals Tonight! presents a lively and enjoyable concert staging with some lovely full production performances.
The story has all the absurdity and plot twists of a screwball comedy—two penniless White Russian émigrés in 1927 Paris, having run out of things to sell, are at last forced to find jobs. Gasp. They may possess billions of rubles but as those were given to them personally by the last Tsar for when the next Tsar comes on the scene, what can they do? Being possessed of great honesty, Tatiana (the marvelous Barbara McCullough) and Mikhail (an understated Al Pagano) have never touched the money. Note: many of the other characters in this piece seem to know all about those funds and this knowledge will lead to many a complication as the story proceeds. Handily, their former prima ballerina friend knows of an American oil family living in Paris and desperately in need of servants (she knows this as she is apparently sleeping with Mr. Davis, but since the plot pays little mind to that, neither shall I). The desperate Davis couple are immediately ready to hire the Russians but Tatiana and Mikhail insist on interviewing them... and yet still the Davises have no idea what they are in for. We quickly meet the impossible Davis offspring (played with great fun and energy by Dana Domenick and Ronald Hornsby), various officials (Soviet and French), members of a "small cartel" Mr. Davis wants to put together, and a host of Russian émigrés making their way in the apparently shaky economy of 1927 Paris.
It is lunatic but holds together even while defying you to ignore the dramatic irony of what the story is saying and how history has played out. Consider the number "A Small Cartel," in which the characters relish their impending oil wealth and plot to fix the price of fuel and profits with the occasional war—only if needed. They also blithely refer to sending out "a native to dig a well." Now that sentiment is part of the period and is by far the most outrageous moment in the show (the production is not utterly hidebound by the time in which it was written), but it does cause a jolt. There a few other, much less outrageous but interesting moments that come up and the production does not make excuses or mitigate but by staying true to the style and intention, it does play more smoothly than a less well-executed production would play.
Tovarich is deftly staged by Thomas Sabella-Mills, who keeps this evening moving along. Within the constraints of a concert staging, he ensures that it is always clear where one is in the story. The choreography is for the most part smart, concise, and witty. He is well served by a largely talented supporting cast, best exemplified by Robert Anthony Jones, who plays a host of roles with specificity and verve.
Where the production runs into a bit of trouble may be due in part to the company's aesthetic. Their obvious love for the musical has lead them to include every song written for the show originally, which is eight more than made it to the Broadway production, and more than the balance of the show can support. The book is overwhelmed by the music. While the evening does have great charm, it does feel a tad too long and ends a moment after the charm has peaked.
Yet there is certainly enough charm and skill here to enjoy this rarely seen and largely fun piece. Go see Tovarich—comrades, you will enjoy.