Ballets Russes - The Musical

Book by Bernard Myers, music & lyrics by David Reiser
A Stage Kindly New Musical Theatre Initiative
Rosemary Branch Theatre

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Diaghilev's Ballets Russes employed the music of great composers and showed the work of the greatest dancers and most exciting stage designers of the time so it takes a lot of chutzpah to make a musical about them and that is something that this company and creative team aren't short of and with a little indulgence from the audience, they largely pull it off.

This isn't a musical history of the ballet company, though its fortunes from its creation until the First World War are the background to the plot. It concentrates on impresario Serge Diaghilev, dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and the relationship between them. It is a story that echoes one of those fairytale ballets that led the Russian repertoire when Diaghilev began his company: a tale of love, jealousy and power with the pivotal influence of an interfering fairy. In the boy meets boy, boy meets girl, boy loses boy simplicity of the plot there is a classic format for a traditional musical, with the ballet company itself to provide a chorus.

Bernard Myers' book cuts down the characters to the bare minimum and, though it and one of David Reiser's songs remind us of the continual financial problems that faced Diaghilev, it offers little more than a glimpse of the undercurrents in that talent packed company. What we do get is a series of romantic duets and emotion packed numbers that owe more to musical comedy convention than to the psychology of the real people being played. Though bearing famous names these characters are acting out a fairytale version of the complexities of what actually happened. Those who wrote about them almost all took sides. Myers doesn't, though Frank Loman's Diaghilev sometimes does look demonic there are no villains here, not even Romola (Katrina Gibson), the Hungarian aristocrat who set her cap at Nijinsky, unless you want to see Blake Askew's Baron Gunzburg as a kind of Carabosse.

Director-choreographer Vik Sivalingam wisely does not try to emulate Diaghilev's choreographers, though there is some tongue in cheek reference to Nijinsky's two dimensional classical frieze images and angular port de bras in the dances he invents to suggest the first nights of L'Apres Midi d'un Faune and Rite of Spring. (Intriguingly, though there is dialogue reference to his masturbating faun, the image chosen is the cleaned up version with the scarf wrapped round his angled arms.)

These are musical theatre performers, not classical ballet dancers, and though they do pose and pirouette to suggest being in class or rehearsal there is wisely no attempt to pretend they are. James Muller can sing touchingly but he is not a dancer capable of the leaps and elevation that made Nijinsky's reputation. It would be a very lucky actor who had the charisma and sexual attraction with which Nijinsky himself seems to have been endowed on stage but it would help to see Muller's eyes more often share the emotion that is evident in his duets with beautifully sung Diaghilev.

On the first night some voices were not yet matched to the size of the venue and Romola was a little too insistently shrill even for her but this is a very hardworking team who give the show plenty of vitality and that carries it along.

Rachel Wingate's design consists of some swirls of red cloth on the rear wall of a black box with only couple of gold painted chairs draped with a red bordered black cloth apart from the grand piano at which musical director Katy Lipson plays splendidly throughout. In an intriguing directorial touch each character is introduced on their first entrance by taking an item of costume off the wall, a dimming of the lights and then an entrance as the lights come up again. This stylization helps to set the simplicity and theatricality of the production placing the emphasis on the performers and the tuneful music. Reiser has the knack of writing new music that sounds already familiar without being excessively derivative whether warmly romantic or making clever commentary. This is an unpretentious pocket musical that on its own terms works.

Until 3rd June 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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