Theatergoers of the world, unite in giggling. You have nothing to lose but your depression—though of course I mean only the emotional kind; our economic miseries will require more substantial, perhaps even more socialistic, remedies.
Did he just say “socialistic?” Yes, I said “socialistic,” but Marx my words, you will be able to view our capitalist chaos from many new Engels after you’ve seen the extremely silly and antically antiquated new musical Iron Curtain (Baruch Performing Arts Center). So quit Stalin and get your bourgeois masses over to the theater in the high-tech sub-basement of Baruch College, where you can be immensely amused and at the same time feel totally safe from nuclear attack if by chance the Cold War starts up again.
Though not dating back to the actual Cold War, Iron Curtain is nonetheless what you might call an old new musical: Prospect Theater, which perpetrated the current Off-Broadway production, first staged this piece of foolery Off-Off in 2006; there followed some reworking and a showing of excerpts in the 2009 NAMT Festival. One gathers that the work’s coherence has not appreciably improved. Susan DiLallo’s book, though often droll, has more loose threads than a shirt factory’s discard bin, while its patent unbelievability would make an actual 1950s musical about Soviet-American interactions, like Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings, look as earnestly fact-bound as a government report. Silliness is its essence, and the continuous giggle that used to be a major aspect of our musical theater is the principal effect it desires to provoke.
The old-fashioned musical itself, in fact, is Iron Curtain’s subject, as well as its form, tone, and atmosphere. The time is the mid-1950s, the height of the Cold War. A flop songwriting team, Finkel (David Perlman) and Katz (Todd Alan Johnson), has, once again, missed its chance to write a big Broadway musical: The producers of the upcoming Damn Yankees thought Adler and Ross, having already had one hit, might be a safer bet. Forlorn, they answer a mysterious ad in Variety promising songwriters big money and exciting travel—and find themselves kidnapped and stowed in the luggage compartment of a flight bound for Moscow.
The Soviets, it seems, also have a flop musical on their hands, a lump of congealed borscht with a collective-farm setting called Oh, Kostroma!. They think Finkel and Katz will make an ideal team of show doctors, so unknown in New York that they’ll never be missed and—thinks the KGB’s Comrade Schmearnov (Aaron Ramey)—can easily be disposed of once the show’s opened. But Comrade Onanov (Gordon Stanley), of the “Ministry of Musical Persuasion,” has other plans. He actually likes musicals, without which “life would be so stale and sensible,” as he sings in the big second-act tribute to their art, “meaningful and oh so un-mundane.” With his encouragement, the duo turns both its own and the Ministry’s bad luck around, quickly churning out a piece of anti-capitalist escapism that remakes Damn Yankees’s deal-with-the-devil plot as the tale of a Soviet factory girl who sells her soul for Hollywood stardom.
Naturally, they come up with a hit, but Katz, the ever-pessimistic composer, pines for his girl back home (Maria Couch) while dodging the advances of the show’s East German female director (Bobbi Kotula), whose s&m predilections mean she isn’t discussing joke writing when she talks about gags. Meanwhile, Finkel, the team’s irrepressible lyricist, has fallen for both the socialist system and the show’s ingenue, Masha (Jenn Gambatese), a cagey bee who has her eye on him for reasons far from ingenuous. There are secret identities, arrests, escapes, defections this way and that, and even, when Comrade Krushchev (John Fico) turns up to denounce everybody, a really big shoe.
Yes, it’s all backdated foolishness, but what else can you expect from a musical in which Peter Mills’s puckish, saucy lyrics rhyme “hotcha” with “dacha,” and Stephen Weiner’s music strives for tunes that “Every engineer will whistle/While he calibrates a missile.” Cara Reichel’s production, with its done-on-a-dime scenery and its not-quite-spot-on casting, evokes the heyday of the early Off-Broadway musicals. Perlman (who suggests a giddy version of Paul Rudnick), Gambatese, and Stanley supply considerable compensation for the cast’s not-quite elements, and Christine O’Grady’s sweetly wacky choreography suggests a paean to the Russian-born 1950s Broadway choreographer Boris Runanin—about whose work a critic once wrote, “He kept the dancers Runanin and out all evening long.” Apologies for that: Having just seen something irresistible, how could I resist?