Killing Rasputin is not one of your holiday games to paraphrase one of the lines in The Naming Of Cats in T.S. Eliot's delightful cat poems, which holds a certain truth. In order to kill this mad monk, who had the whole country eating from his hand, Prince Yusupov had to make several different attempts using poison, guns and as a last resort his own hands.
This is also what this new musical currently on view at the Bridewell Theatre is all about. We get to see a fascinating cat and mouse game between these two figures amidst the always tumultuous backdrop of Russia. Composer James McConnell has collaborated with his lyric writing partner Kit Hesketh-Hervey and book writer Stephen Clark on a musical, which was first workshopped years ago as Yusupov at Andrew Lloyd Webber's annual Sydmonton festivals.
Now the fruits of their hard work has seen the light of the day and it seems to be a welcome addition to London's current roster of musicals. To be honest there are several things wrong with this show, but as a whole it powerfully delivers thanks to spirited acting and singing from the wonderful cast. One should always be grateful for the courage to put on new musicals, which are usually a lot more riskier ventures than guaranteed old hits. In a true Bridewell spirit the audience will not be disappointed with this latest arrival as long as they keep in mind that all new musicals are in a way works in progress. As someone once said "musicals are not written, they are rewritten."
This new musical does bring a lot of memories from other shows I have seen before. The whole setting of richly ornamented ball room makes one immediately think of Tommy Tune's striking concept for Grand Hotel, which basically used a similar solution on order to incorporate different performing spaces in one set. At the tiny Bridewell we have some props and a big revolving construction of steps takes the center stage transforming into battlefields and churches. This is a rather clever idea nd designer Peter McKIntosh should be thanked for his spirited idea. It also allows director to Ian Brown to make the most of his talented cast and provides lots of space for some crowd scenes in the streets of St Petersburg. This once again brings Boris Godunov to my mind, although McConnell never comes even close to this simply wondrous score in his rather pleasant, but forgettable through sung composition.
The first half tells us the story of Rasputin and his first encounter with Yusupov. We also get glimpses into the life of the royal family. The crowd comes and goes on the stage telling us about the turmoil always evident in Russian history. The revolution is coming and things are going to change more than no-one could have believed then. The first act is rather long and to my disappointment I did find it lacking a proper structure both musically and dramatically.
There are some wonderful scenes and songs in it, but as a whole it is just simply too heavy laden with all of the necessary background to this story. The approach to this material is at times rather heavy handed and one would be truly thankful for some comic relief in it.
However, things do get vastly better after a very tedious beginning and the end of the first act with Yusupov's transformation into a killer already under way really makes things up. The problem with this show is that it might be a little bit too heavy plot wise. I guess that some members of the audience got a bit confused with the plot early on. I on other hand never felt any confusion, but that might be a result of having lived in Finland closer to the Russia.
Musical director Timothy Sutton plays the whole score on a baby grand and I did find this a bit of a problem. He does play the score extremely well and I loved the sound of his pianistic touch to it, but quite honestly I do think that this show might have hugely benefitted with a full orchestration for a tiny band. Some scenes and songs are just yelling out for richer instrumentation especially in large ensemble numbers. On the other hand some moments do benefit from this "chamber" approach to the material and the lilting waltzes heard at the royal ball were just simply delicious as played by Mr Sutton.
Perhaps it would be nice to hear this whole score one with a support of an full orchestra. That might provide these epic scenes a more appropriate background as basically the narrative content is just yearning for more epic and dramatic musical approach. Big sounds are called for especially in the battlefields and the darker moments towards the end of the show. Director Ian Brown has managed to pull off a hat trick in his simplistic staging and his wonderfully detailed production eventually saves the whole show together with winning performances from the company. He aims to provide a certain amount of fluidness in this otherwise slow tale and especially the second act goes onwards at a full steam just as a good thriller should do. He has wisely focused on four central characters and thanks to some sound directorial choices we are able to get inside their heads and souls.
It is hard to really feel any close kinship with these characters, but I for one certainly did care for the proceedings acted before my very own eyes. Shows like this can raise mixed feelings as some of the more daring shows have always done. In this regard I congratulate Stephen Clark once again for the choice of subject matter not forgetting the composer and lyricist of course.
This musical does contain some dark and rather ambitious influences drawn from the various diferent musical sources. It takes it's subject matter seriously and even mangaes to make a few social comments along the way. I loved Clark's Eyam earlier this season here at the Bridewell and his rewritten stuff for Martin Guerre and I do think that even in this case his unique touch is showing through. Unfortunately though the creators have chosen to tell their story in a totally through sung style and Kit Hesketh-Hervey's lyrics are quite frankly at times rather weak. Perhaps a little bit more dialogue instead of some endless recitatives would have made the first act shorter and more coherent.
Never mind about these flaws. Once the true central story of Prince Yusupov's moral transformation and his obsession to kill rasputin gets on it's way one tends to sit on the edge of the seat waiting to see what will happen next. The second half is a cop out and the final sequence is just simply wonderfully put together just as in any good stage work: this is the moment that the whole show has been aiming at and in the end Killing Rasputin powerfully delivers. The final scene depicting the murder of the royal family is a striking one and stays in one's mind or a long time as one of the most powerful stage pictures seen recently.
Thanks to fine cast and two absolutely ravishing performances from Jerome Pradon as Rasputin and Hal Fowler as Prince Yusupov this whole show works so well in the end. Surely I have now witnessed better acting and singing for a long time and especially Pradon as the mad monk is totally unbelievably scary in crazed state of mind. His healing scene was one of the most exciting that I have ever seen on stage and as such it really deserves to be seen.
Personally I fell in love with Meredith Brown once again as her portrayal of Princess Irina is so delicately acted and sung. In my mind she is still the best Betty Schaeffer in Sunset Boulevard that I have seen on stage and once again she powerfully proves that she is a major talent to be reckoned with. Les Miserables stalwart Gay Soper (most recently seen in The Rink on the Fringe) brings her own charisma to the role of Tsarina and commands the whole stage by just simply being present, let alone singing with her golden voice. Leigh McDonald plays the part of the MC, which of course brings Joel Grey and Cabaret in mind almost immediately. I did find the use of such a device to tell the story a bit strange and perhaps it just simply does not need her character at all. Her acting and singing is wonderful and she literally stops the show a few times in the second act.
I would really have preferred that the creators had opted for something like the role of Engineer in Miss Saigon, who grows organically out of the show itself. This whole idea of an MC strutting on stage does not feel right in this context however wonderfully the part is being played. It seems like that the raison d' etre for her existence in this musical is to provide an outsider's view to the events played out. Luckily she has some rather charming numbers with some real bite to sing and does make a wonderful job in the second act with songs like Liebling, liebling providing one of the musical highlights of this evening.
Killing Rasputin might have it's flaws, but in the end it is totally impossible not to like this show. As said before it is always welcome to see a new musical being born form the ashes like a Phoenix bird and trying out it's wings before taking into flight. In this case, if some structural problems can be ironed out, we do have a challenging and daring new piece of a musical theatre before our eyes. I wish this bid would fly high for a long time to come...
by Matti Aijala
Musical Stages Online