Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Russian on the Side": ? ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ?



Wow! There are probably two audiences watching each performance of Mark Nadler's astonishing 'Russian on the Side,' running through November 16 at the Marines Memorial Theatre. One knows the music and gives out stars. The other one doesn't and holds up question marks. But judging from the enthusiastic Opening Night response, people who didn't understand Nadler's musical references were simply swept away by his virtuosity and silliness. The audience barely let him off the stage at the end.

The backbone of 'Russian on the Side' is a tongue-twisting song lyric, written by Ira Gershwin and sung originally by Danny Kaye in the musical "Lady in the Dark." The song incorporates (and occasionally rhymes) the names of 50 Russian composers. Kvochinsky? Stravinsky? Glinka? These are not simple names, but Nadler has learned a vignette about each one and plays a snippet of music that each composer wrote. At the end, he plays 'em all. If you stay with him, it's hysterical.

For those of us who are familiar with classical music and a few famous show stoppers from the Broadway tin-pan-alley tradition, this show is a rare gem. Nadler's acrobatic antics while in front of, in back of, or on top of his grand piano recall a young Victor Borge; his personality and enthusiasm remind you of an even-more energized Martin Short. Nadler is no classical master, but the dude can play -- with one hand or two hands or no hands. He tells funny jokes and fascinating stories.

What in the world is not to like? This reviewer is coming back and bringing his mother.



But hold on now. What about the masses of people who never heard of Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev or either Anton Rubenstein, the Russian or Artur Rubenstein, the Pole? If you're younger than, say, forty, have you ever heard 'Stranger in Paradise?' Can you relate to the fact that the song's melody was taken from a theme written by the Russian composer Borodine, who subsuquently became the first composer to ever win a Tony Award seventy years after his death?

It's a funny story. But does it sink in? Maybe. Maybe not.

Mark Nadler doesn't care. He's having a ball on stage. Wearing his morning coat, gold vest and red cravat, his fey, Jewish, Broadway manner comes across as honest and appealing. You, the audience, may get lost but you probably won't. The truth is you won't know if you love this kind of thing until you see it, because you've never seen anything else like it.

Sitting at the end of the aisle to the side of the reviewer was a couple, he a bit older than she. The man shouted, laughed, then jumped to his feet clapping his hands over his head at the show's finale. The woman was less demonstrative. He turned and asked his date: "So, how'd you like the show?" and she paused awhile before saying... "well, it was different."

Different, it is. We love it. Go see "Russian on the Side." If you can dig up your old piano teacher, bring her along.

RATINGS ? ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Russian on the Side' a rare Four Star Rating with a Question Mark at the start and a Question Mark at the end. The question marks are because The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division believes Four Stars translates as "NOW! GO NOW!" But it has no idea if there exists a wide enough audience for this show.

Three stars would not be enough. Three and a half stars with no question marks would probably be OK, and three and three quarter stars with one question mark would also do. But to hell with it. Four stars and two question marks it is. After you hear Mark Nadler sing Frank Loesser's 'The Ugly Duckling' and Steven Sondheim's 'Next,' and play Rachmaninoff's Prelude Opus 3 No. 2 in C-sharp Minor, first relating the sad story of the grand piano master's lifelong exile in New York, we can talk about the question marks. Please comment when you see the show.

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"Russian on the Side"
Marines Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter Street, Second Floor, San Francisco
Tue-Sun through November 16
$39-$49

2 comments:

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