Brother Russia is the fifth world premiere production presented this season by Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Composer Dana Rowe and lyricist/book writer John Dempsey are the authors of two of Signature's successes of seasons past: The Fix, a hallucinatory look at political ambition, and The Witches of Eastwick, in which the Devil settles in a bucolic New England village. However, both of these musicals had a distinct point of viewwhich the current show lacks.
The first question is what story Dempsey and Rowe want to tell. Is it the legendary life story of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, the mystic who came to dominate the court of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and his empress, Alexandra? Is it an investigation of the nature of truth, as seen through the eyes of a hangdog acting troupe wandering through rural Siberia, headed by an ancient man who believes himself to be Rasputin? Or is it a celebration of the reality and artifice of the theater? Director Eric Schaeffer keeps all these ideas whirling, but the parts don't add up to a comprehensible whole.
"Am I who I say I am?," the unimaginably old Brother Russia (John Lescault) asks his players and the audience. "Let's find out." With that, company member Sasha (Doug Kreeger) takes on the character of young Grigori, who gets seduced by a witch (Rachel Zampelli); rescues the Tsarina Alexandra (Amy McWilliams) from opium addiction; discovers the debauchery of the imperial court with the help of a man in red platform shoes (Stephen Gregory Smith); and discovers true love with the Tsar's daughter Anastasia (Natascia Diaz). And does he cheat death? Well, that's an open question.
Some moments in the score have rather obvious roots in other works: Grigori's impassioned soliloquy suggests a similar moment in Sweeney Todd, and the broad ensemble number about Russia's role in the Great War is not that different from Bob Fosse's skewering of war in Pippin. Others stand on their own, especially "Little Finch, Little Bear," a gentle duet between Grigori and Anastasia.
Schaeffer has brought together many talented performersincluding Signature stalwarts Amy McWilliams, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Stephen Gregory Smith and Erin Driscollbut they don't have much in the way of character throughlines. Diaz and Kreeger (who co-starred in Rooms: a rock romance some years back at MetroStage) make an impassioned couple, while Lescault does the best he can, trying to give concrete shape to a symbol.