Shari Wattling as Maria Rasputin. Photo Credit: Kristian Jones.
Maria Rasputin Presents
January 29 – February 9, 2013
Joyce Doolittle Theatre
Was Grigori Rasputin, spiritual leader to Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, a selfless healer and man of God trying to do right by the Romanov family and the people of Russia or was he a power-hungry opportunist who used the Royal Family’s trust to advance his own agenda? This is the central question in Maria Rasputin Presents, the uneven and ultimately unsatisfying new musical written and composed by Forte Musical Theatre Guild’s Joe Slabe and directed by Mark Bellamy.
Told through the narration of Rasputin’s daughter, Maria (well-acted but weakly sung in the upper range by Shari Wattling) the musical relives the events that led up to the monk’s ultimate murder. Played as a kind of circus act, a nod to Maria’s own time spent as a big top performer, Maria Rasputin Presents unfolds as a he says/she says light comedic narrative with Maria’s version of events compared every step of the way to that of Rasputin’s murderer Felix Yusupov (the strong-voiced Daniel Mallet gratingly assaulting us with a stereotypical capital-G gay character treatment). As the scenes play out, the two argue over what really happened with Maria interrupting Felix’s account mid-stream with a thrash of her ringleader’s whip to call him a liar and demand he present the truth. Or at least he truth as she wants to believe it. But the point really isn’t whose story is correct. At least not as Slabe has written it.
Rather than present complex or intriguing insights about the mythical Rasputin himself, the playwright is far more interested in the gay love affair between Felix and his murderous co-conspirator Dmitri Pavlovich (the energetic and talented Scott Shpeley) and this is where the musical spirals into boring, cliché-ridden camp. Beginning with a tired retread of every drag queen joke you’ve ever seen (Felix singing It’s Good to be a Queen) right through to the flamingly gay man attempting to lose his lilt number (Felix’s hackneyed I’m Gonna Make a Man Outta Me), the musical’s first act practically drowns in offensively obvious humour. It’s all just too much and adds nothing to the story but the playwright’s and/or director’s conceit.
Which is a shame as there are glimpses of something far more interesting and compelling along the way. Near the end of Act 1, we are finally shown some of the allure attributed to Rasputin (a mostly mechanical Kevin Aichele struggling to make meaning out of bland dialogue and a thinly written character) in a lovely song meant to heal the Tsarina’s Hemophiliac son. Forgetting for a moment that Sailing sounds an awful lot like Inch Worm of Danny Kaye and Hans Christian Anderson fame (and forgetting that this type of musical derivative populates much of the score), it’s a number that is not only beautifully sung but wonderfully enhanced by an extremely touching and effective use of puppetry. Oh yes, the show has puppets. But other than this one instance I can’t say that they were used to any great dramatic or comedic effect beyond the expected gags.
Things improve somewhat in the much shorter Act II as the comedic banality gets bumped for the more interesting elements of the story. The audience is quickly brought up to speed on political and historical events including the rumours swirling about Rasputin’s intentions. A wonderfully imagined and realized number, I Pull a Few Strings, makes use of human marionette staging to illustrate the hold Rasputin had over the Royal Family and Rasputin’s murder is cleverly portrayed via the show’s most musically and lyrically compelling number, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Die. Unfortunately what little ground the cast gained in these crowd-pleasing numbers is lost again in the finale when the comedy that has peppered the entire musical is ousted to make room for an out-of-place angsty and sentimental conclusion.
Slabe is right in thinking that the myth of Rasputin still intrigues us. However by not allowing the audience inside the monk’s motives and feelings and instead leaving the story in the hands of the whip cracking Maria and more problematically the un-dynamic gay duo of Felix and Dmitri, Slabe has given us nothing more than a superficial glimpse set to music. But it’s Bellamy’s poor choices that ultimately cause most of the musical’s failings. From the volume of the live music which drowned out both female singers at every occasion to set pieces consisting of trunks that were at once unattractive and cumbersome/noisy to move around to the uber-gay vexatious presentation, it felt as though the director’s eyes and ears weren’t working on a full tank.
Original musicals don’t come around often in Calgary. Certainly not ones with the potential that this show has underneath all the clutter. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Maria Rasputin Presents is a work in progress that eventually loses it’s done to death camp and morphs into a meatier and more cleverly funny and insightful production. To that end I wish them Удачи! ( Good luck in Russian)
For the guys and the girls – Your enjoyment will depend on how funny you think fictional gay constructs are. Sure you’ll learn a bit about Rasputin himself, but not enough to feel satisfied. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – The double-sided storytelling is easy enough to follow and the musical numbers roll along fine without boredom setting in. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theater junkie – Hopefully they’ll work out the narrative and production issues and remount. Wait to see what happens. SKIP IT