Comrades, uncover ironclad comedy behind ‘Iron Curtain’

March 22, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Stern portraits of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin peer from a slyly subversive set piece in “Iron Curtain” at Village Theatre: horns for Marx, a propeller beanie for Lenin and Coke-bottle glasses for Stalin.

Yengenyi Onanov (Nick DeSantis, center) and actors portraying apparatchiks at the Soviet Ministry of Musical Persuasion perform in ‘Iron Curtain’ at Village Theatre. By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

Spoofing the godfathers of communism is a fitting introduction to the original musical.

“Iron Curtain” is no cobwebbed museum piece, even though the globe buried the Cold War era 20 years ago. Instead, the piece is unabashedly enjoyable — and nimble enough to shift from kitschy to heartfelt, often in the same number.

“Iron Curtain” carries a serious name, but the musical is as elastic as Flubber under the crush of so much history. The premise nods to classic Broadway musicals, spy-versus-spy potboilers and too many Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons to count.

The latest propaganda piece from the Soviet Ministry of Musical Persuasion — “Oklahoma!” rip-off “Oh, Kostroma!” — is a dud. Infuriated, the mercurial Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, commands the ministry to import Broadway playwrights to doctor the musical before opening night.

Howard Katz and Murray Finkel do indeed qualify as playwrights, although the duo is chronically unsuccessful at selling pitches to producers.

The idea for the latest Katz and Finkel musical, about a loveable-loser baseball team, sounds like a surefire smash. Oops, another set of scribes just sold something similar — something titled “Damn Yankees” — for a Broadway run.

Determined, Finkel convinces Katz to answer a call for playwrights in Variety, although worrywart Katz is suspicious.

Yengenyi Onanov, the apparatchik in birth-control glasses leading the Ministry of Musical Persuasion, and Sergei Schmearnov, the oily KGB agent assigned to supervise Onanov, kidnap Katz and Finkel and smuggle the hapless pair behind the Iron Curtain.

The party puts up the duo at the Lapov Luxury, but the starriest hotel in Moscow turns out to be a cockroach-infested gulag.

(If all of the Russian names in “Iron Curtain” seem too obvious, the result on stage is timed as precisely as a neutron bomb.)

So, Katz and Finkel shuffle aside the unrecoverable “Oh, Kostroma!” for another musical — titled, in another yuk-yuk joke, “Damnable Yankees” — meant to star the flaxen-haired chorus girl Masha Petrovna Haylukmikova. (Danielle Barnum, as Masha, could pass for Taylor Swift, sans the Bond girl accent.)

Katz and Finkel toil under the gun — or, more accurately, at gunpoint — to create something to please the premier.

Jared Michael Brown, as the optimistic Finkel, and Matt Wolfe, as the skittish Katz, display a genuine camaraderie as a pair of unlikely hostages. The actors also possess the pipes to add depth and richness to the material.

Katz is skeptical about the Soviets’ intentions, despite promises of release and a return to the United States after opening night.

“Yeah, like they let Poland go,” he bemoans.

Meanwhile, inside the Ministry of Musical Persuasion bunker beneath Red Square, Onanov frets. If the musical is another bomb, exile to Siberia or a gloomier fate awaits.

Nick DeSantis, a regular on the Village Theatre stage, offers charm and gusto in spades as Onanov. Like the horn-rimmed character, DeSantis clearly respects the constructive influence of musical theater — something addressed in the showstopper “If Not for Musicals.”

John Dewar, as Schmearnov, is a sneering and sneaky counterpoint to the garrulous Onanov. Carolyn Magoon stands out as Katz’s dedicated girlfriend, struggling actress Shirley Dooley.

Bobbi Kotula is magnetic as the “Damnable Yankees” director, Hildret Heinz, a riding-crop-brandishing dominatrix on loan from East Germany. The shtick seems out of place until Kotula sings “A Frau Divided” and ticks through Teutonic stereotypes to sidesplitting effect.

Ellen McClain, the tart-tongued accompanist and scene stealer in “The Full Monty” at the start of the Village Theatre season, pops up in “Iron Curtain” as the scene-stealing Olga, a receptionist and, probably, a spy.

Allan Barlow is a delight as Khrushchev. The premier uses a shoe to beat a lackey and declares to a mortified Katz and Finkel, “We will bury you — in fan mail!” (Khrushchev once pounded a shoe against a lectern in a speech at the United Nations.)

The creative team secreted underhanded references to the Cold War throughout the musical like Fabergé eggs.

“Iron Curtain” rollicks for more than 220 minutes through a Cold War fantasyland, although the finale feels as sudden as a communist coup d’état.

The lyrics sometimes seem as light as cotton candy. Credit the creative team — author Susan DiLallo, lyricist Peter Mills and composer Stephen Weiner — for reassembling material from history textbooks into comedy.

The production crew deserves kudos, too. The aesthetic of the show, especially the lush costumes from Karen Ledger, is richer than the czars.

The promised outcome left little to the imagination if the United States or the U.S.S.R. started flinging nuclear missiles at the other superpower: mutual assured destruction, or MAD.

“Iron Curtain” shears the threat from the conflict and re-imagines the Cold War in a zany way — more madcap than MAD.

If you go

‘Iron Curtain’

  • Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre
  • 303 Front St. N.
  • Through April 24
  • Show times vary
  • $20 to $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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