Review: The Beautiful Lady Musicalizes the Doomed Russian Intellectuals of the Last Century

A musical by the late Elizabeth Swados makes its belated New York City debut at La MaMa.

Starr Busby plays Boris Pronin in the New York debut of the Elizabeth Swados musical The Beautiful Lady, directed by Anne Bogart, at La MaMa.
(© Steven Pisano)

La MaMa is a theater that doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk: Its relationship with Belarus Free Theatre stretches back more than a decade, and it is currently hosting in residence the dissident Russian director Dmitry Krymov, who fled Russia following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. If any theater in New York should debut The Beautiful Lady, it’s La MaMa. This bewitching musical by Elizabeth Swados (score and book), Paul Schmidt (original book), and Jocelyn Clarke (book adaptation) is about poets living through the fitful death of the Russian monarchy and the bloody birth of Stalinism. It feels particularly timely as we peer across the oceans at the further disintegration of Europe’s last remaining empire.

Like Hair or Swados’s own Tony-nominated musical, Runaways, The Beautiful Lady is most interested in capturing a specific time and place (in this case, St. Petersburg’s Stray Dog Café) by introducing us to the people who frequented it: There’s Alexander Blok (George Abud), a poet who wrote 800 love poems to “The Beautiful Lady” (a secret identity much-claimed by the city’s prostitutes). Sergei Yesenin (Andrew Polec) is a country-bred Casanova who married four times before age 30. Poet-essayist Osip Mandelstam (Henry Stram), the long-suffering Marina Tsvetaeva (Ashley Pérez Flanagan), and futurist Velimir Khlebnikov (Tom Nelis) are all regulars at the Stray Dog. So is Vladimir Mayakovsky (Djoré Nance), whose cheerleading of the Bolshevik Revolution doesn’t save him. It is up to the only survivor of the bunch, Anna Akhmatova (Kate Fuglei), to remember — and she vividly does during this hallucination on the final night of her life.

The master of ceremonies is the café’s owner Boris Pronin (a sexy and menacing Starr Busby), who divides all patrons into one of two types: poets and pharmacists. As we the pharmacists watch, Boris introduces the poets and shows us how each of them died as the exuberance of revolution gave way to Soviet tyranny. Brutal interrogation, forced labor in Siberia, suicide, and execution all arrive at the Stray Dog like violent drunks come to ruin the party.

Andrew Polec (center) plays Sergei Yesenin in the Elizabeth Swados musical The Beautiful Lady, directed by Anne Bogart, at La MaMa.
(© Steven Pisano)

Swados premiered this musical at the Mark Taper Forum in 1985. It never made it to New York before her death in 2016. And yet it feels of the same generation as The Great Comet and Rags Parkland, musicals that were undoubtedly influenced by Swados’s visionary style, which throws the audience into a dark room and counts on our eyes to adjust. We may not catch everything, but the thrill of being there makes us want to stay and absorb all we can. The lyrics are pristine, and the sound balance is ideal thanks to sound designer Charles Coes — but there is just so much to listen to.

Anne Bogart (a director most famous for writing books about directing) makes her La MaMa debut with a production that is very much guided by the composer’s restless spirit. She brings stark visual clarity where she can (characters join the ranks of the dead by laying their head down on a table, a shot glass clutched in an extended right arm). The individualized costumes of the first act (lovingly designed by Gabriel Berry, right down to the undergarments) are replaced by uniform gray jumpsuits in the second, a bleak indication of life under Communism. Andromache Chalfant’s endlessly rearrangeable set of white tables and chairs facilitates the creation of all Russia within the café, as does Brian H. Scott’s dramatic lighting. It’s essential for a musical that never lingers in one place for very long.

The frenzied activity onstage extends into the house, making us feel a bit like bewildered kindergarteners with a teacher desperate to hold our attention: Audience members are encouraged to bark and chirp as party hats and shot glasses are passed around, as are a guest book and a collection bucket (donations go to Razom for Ukraine). It’s a lot to keep track of while also learning about somewhat obscure Russian poets.

Tom Nelis and Djoré Nance star in the Elizabeth Swados musical The Beautiful Lady, directed by Anne Bogart, at La MaMa.
(© Steven Pisano)

Luckily, memorable performances make an early and lasting impression. Abud’s readings of Blok’s poetry are particularly haunting: a persistent, slightly erotic cadence to his voice, his eyes heavy with the weight of too much seen. Polec easily steps into the role of the “blonde haired boy of the Stray Dog Café,” exuding an energy that is both alluring and erratic — fun for a date, but not necessarily a marriage (as the three ex-wives might attest). Nelis radiates eternal youth as Velimir, leaping off a café table to perform (with Nance) the pop-rock ditty “King of Time.” The electric guitar riffs of this song slice through the previous regime of accordions and violins like a guillotine (excellent orchestrations by Kris Kukul). Naturally, the revolution devours its wide-eyed children, in the end.

But for all its talk of revolution, The Beautiful Lady most bluntly conveys the continuity in Russian society, as “Little Father Lenin” replaces “Little Father Tsar” (for more on this, I recommend Oliver Figes’s excellent new book, The Story of Russia). It’s no fun being a futurist in a society mired in the past, one that will never truly move forward until it releases the baggage of empire. The Stray Dog generation was doomed from the start, but for Russian exiles currently living in Istanbul, Astana, and New York, there’s still hope.

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