‘Iron Curtain’ offers Cold War comedy

March 8, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Village Theatre readies original musical ‘Iron Curtain’ for launch

The generation brought up since the Cold War might not remember the arms race, duck-and-cover drills or backyard bomb shelters, but the fallout from the conflict continues to shape international affairs and, from time to time, pop culture.

In the latter category is “Iron Curtain” — a comedy set in the frostiest moments of the Cold War and a soon-to-debut original musical at Village Theatre. The musical is set in the late 1950s, as both sides stockpiled nukes for Armageddon, although “Iron Curtain” uses the conflict as a backdrop and plays up the red menace for laughs.

The cast from ‘Iron Curtain’ offers Cold War comedy at Village Theatre starting March 17. By John Pai

Nikita Khrushchev, the irascible Soviet leader, enjoys a good musical. Yengenyi Onanov — actor Nick DeSantis, in another Village Theatre turn — leads the Ministry of Musical Persuasion, the state agency responsible for churning out musicals as communist propaganda.

“It’s his job to develop a musical that will lift the communistic spirit and extol the virtues of communism to the people of the Soviet Union,” DeSantis said. “He’s also someone who — while he is doing what the party says — he’s also doing what he really loves. He just loves musicals. He’s just crazy about musicals. He’s the right man for the job at the right time.”

Khrushchev orders Onanov to refurbish a dreadful “Oklahoma!” knockoff — or else.

So, the Ministry of Musical Persuasion sends the KGB to kidnap bona fide Broadway scribes and then spirit the team behind the Iron Curtain to salvage the unsalvageable musical.

“What if two Americans who can’t get themselves arrested in America — you know, nothing they do is produced, nobody buys any of their ideas — what if Russia was looking for somebody to ‘fix’ a Russian musical and they decided to kidnap two Americans to do it?” author Susan DiLallo asked.

Back in the U.S.S.R.

Observers, including a critic from The New York Times, praised the concept — and the associated quirks — in early 2006 after “Iron Curtain” debuted Off Broadway.

The team behind the musical — DiLallo, lyricist Peter Mills and composer Stephen Weiner — hatched the concept after learning about musicals used as propaganda tools in the old U.S.S.R.

“They were as clunky and heavy-handed as you might imagine — with peasants dancing and singing around tanks, women in babushkas on farms raking and hoeing,” DiLallo said.

The team started crafting “Iron Curtain” in November 2005 and planned to debut the piece in April 2006 — a light-speed turnaround, considering most musicals require more than 18 months for the initial draft.

“I think what’s really important is that ‘Iron Curtain’ uses modern musical theater storytelling techniques, even though it’s set in 1956,” Weiner said. “The crux of our score is really told in sophisticated musical scenes, which cover a lot of action.”

“Iron Curtain” reached the Festival of New Musicals at the downtown Issaquah playhouse in 2007, and received a workshop at the theater the following year.

The audience feedback from the barebones presentations helped the creative team fine-tune the piece for the Mainstage.

“You have to listen and know that your feelings are going to be hurt every so often, and you have to put that aside and say, ‘What are they telling me?’ My grandmother used to say, ‘If three people tell you you’re drunk, lie down,’” DiLallo said. “So, if you hear things over and over again — ‘I don’t understand this’ or ‘I don’t like that’ — you can’t ignore that.”

From Garden State to police state

The musical “Once Upon a Time in New Jersey” — another period piece from DiLallo and Weiner — charmed Mainstage audiences in late 2007. The experience left the team eager to work at Village Theatre again.

“What I love about the Village Theatre is anybody who touches anything there makes it better, and I cannot say that for most theaters or most theater companies or, God knows, most directors,” DiLallo said.

The creative team is all but certain to change the name from “Iron Curtain” for the same reason less-gutsy regional theaters passed on the musical: Producers assume the show is too esoteric for modern theater audiences.

“I think there are always going to be people that say, ‘I’m not sure I can relate to this.’ Then there are going to be some that go along for the ride,” Weiner said. “If the material is presented well and in entertaining fashion, they’ll kind of learn on the spot.”

The musical skewers the Politburo and Broadway in equal measure. Expect puns aplenty in jokes about mutual assured destruction and colorless Soviet leaders. The communist comrades speak in Boris-and-Natasha accents.

“Most people know, even if it’s in the recesses of their mind from sort of benign history book that they had to read, that there was something called the Cold War and that Russia was called the Soviet Union,” Weiner said.

Though the Iron Curtain collapsed in the early 1990s, communist nations still exist: Cuba, North Korea and China, after a fashion. Headlines from last year trumpeted a Russian spy scandal and another START nuclear-arms agreement.

“You don’t have to be a history major to understand anything that’s going on,” Weiner said. “It’s all about failure and success and love and commitment, things like that — timeless things.”

If you go

‘Iron Curtain’

  • Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre
  • 303 Front St. N.
  • March 17 to April 24
  • Show times vary
  • $20 – $60
  • 392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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