There's no lack of plays with a social consciousness these days, but musicals? New musicals? And new musical comedies? They're almost unheard of, but if you're looking for one whose sense of humor is inextricably bound to its concern for the world - even if it's the world of 1957 - you need look no farther than Iron Curtain, currently being presented by the Prospect Theater Company at the West End Theatre.
True, the persistent relevance of jokes about Communism might have gone down with the Soviet Union, but when the target is also Big Broadway, great gags never go out of style. So you can trust Iron Curtain to skewer the Great White Way and the Red Menace with approximately equal ferocity. That's the good news. The bad news is that while librettist Susan DiLallo, lyricist Peter Mills, and composer Stephen Weiner adeptly mine entertainment from mid-1950s Communism, they don't provide the threatening context necessary to put it all in perspective.
This daffily politicized show might do better to more fully emulate Cole Porter's 1955 musical Silk Stockings than the Richard Adler-Jerry Ross The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. After all, Silk Stockings was overtly political, with the George S. Kaufman-Leueen MacGrath-Abe Burrows book detailing (and derailing with pointed commentary and jokes) an American-Soviet romance. With his books for the Adler-Ross shows, George Abbott watered down highly political material (labor relations, the devil's ennui in the face of the Red Scare) for the populist, escapist Broadway stage, leaving them with just enough bite to feel edgily topical.
Despite its authors' devotion to musical-comedy conventions, which ensures that the fun flies as fast and furious as its dancers' tapping feet, doesn't go as far as effectively. Its story, about two aspiring songwriters kidnapped by the KGB and forced to fix a Communism propaganda musical currently struggling through previews in Russia, is too thin to survive a watered-down treatment - it needs the added dramatic weight that a convincing threat, to the duo or to America, would provide.
As it is, composer Howard Katz (Marcus Neville) and lyricist Murray Finkle (Jeff Edgerton) just get tangled up in a series of capricious conundrums, both artistic and romantic. How to fix this problematic Russian musical? Interpolate songs they wrote for a musical about a baseball team saved by a deal with a devil (they called it Faustball). And while Murray flirts with the musical's fetching star, Masha (Jessica Grové), Howard is pursued by the show's ferocious German director (Bethe B. Austin), and the American girl he left behind (Maria Couch).
But making it all this frothy and frivolous lightens the show's potential punch. We don't see enough of the drearily upbeat, Socialism-tinged Oklahoma! take-off that Howard and Murray are called in to doctor, so we can't understand the theatrical baseline they're working from, and what their changes really accomplish. Nor do the undercover spies in their midst pose any serious danger to their careers in ascendance. And Murray's brief fling with Communism climaxes in one one-liner (if a hilarious one) in one second-act song. DiLallo's book just doesn't provide enough for a fulfilling evening.
Everyone else comes closer. Mills's ever-clever lyrics are, as always, worth savoring, particularly in the synonym-drunk paean to materialism "That's Capital" and the Brecht-Ebb-influenced "A Frau Divided"; Weiner's music effortlessly combines the glitz and glamour of Golden Age Broadway with scintillating Soviet song stylings (orchestrator Dimitri Nakhamkin calls for a balalaika in Daniel Feyer's seven-piece band). Cara Reichel's direction and Christine O'Grady's choreography are happily nimble and energetically paced.
For her role, Austin takes severity to new and perhaps unwise heights. If she tends to push her deep-fried German shtick too far over the top, it better suits the zany material than the earthbound, hypnotized naturalism that Edgerton and Neville employ. Though each is talented and charismatic, neither is inherently lovable or electric, and that kind of understatement in a show this small pushes each into near-invisibility. Couch takes her peroxide-addled character too far; Grové, as a Moscow Marilyn Monroe type, could take hers farther.
Only Gordon Stanley, as Russian operative/producer Onanov, finds an ideal mix of sympathy, levity, and musicality. Onanov must work to satisfy the artistic needs of Howard and Murray, the propagandistic aims of the Russian government, and his own love of musical theatre, and Stanley's fearful and frantic work makes you believe this is a man who truly feels his heart, soul, and head are on the line. He's so real that he's funny, and he's so funny that he's real.
And when he strides forward late in the show to lead a production number about the cheesy, cheery joys that American musical theatre can provide even the oppressed Russian masses, it's the only moment when the political, the musical, and the idealistic blend into one seamless, showstopping expression. More such songs would help Iron Curtain more easily move out of the red and into the black.