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A CurtainUp Review
Iron Curtain

Iron Curtain Gets a Welcome Second Life

Iron Curtain
Jenn Gambatese with company members
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
The Iron Curtain is back. Don't panic. It's not in the Soviet Union but back onstage at the Baruch Performing Arts Center at Baruch College. And the musical is just as delightful and entertaining as it was 5 years ago when CurtainUp reviewed the show.

Inspired by the documentary East Side Story, about the Soviet Union's attempts to write propaganda musicals in the style of Hollywood and Broadway musicals of the 50s, Iron Curtain is about the kidnapping of two unsuccessful musical theater writers who are forced to help the Communists' Ministry of Musical Persuasion.

It all begins when Shirley (Maria Couch), the long-suffering girlfriend of composer Howard Katz (Todd Alan Johnson), suggests that Howard and his partner, lyricist Murray Finkel (David Perlman), answer an ad for songwriters who like to travel. The team ends up at the offices of Onanov Broadway, where the impresario Yevgenyi Onanov (Gordon Stanley) presides.Soon Finkel and Katz are handcuffed, gagged and shipped off to the Soviet Union, where they find that life is uncomfortable and dangerous.

The show they are supposed to doctor in a week is a dreadful mix of clumsy propaganda, classic Russian dance and sheer schmaltz. The director, Hildret Heinz ((Bobbi Kotula), an East Berliner with sadistic tendencies, takes an unreciprocated liking to Howard. They are lodged in a flea-infested room in Lapov Luxury Hotel. And worst of all, unbeknownst to Howard and Murray, KGB officer Sergei Schmearnov (Aaron Ramey) has decided the two are collaborators who must be killed after opening night.

Finally, Howard and Murray decide to write an entirely new show called Damnable Yankees featuring Murray's new love, the winsome and wily Masha (Jenn Gambatese). Meanwhile, Shirley has decided to go looking for Howard and ends up in East Berlin. There are many more intriguing twists before the show comes to its very satisfying and surprising end.

Prospect Theater Company's production, directed by the sure-footed Cara Reichel is slick, smooth, glitzy and perfectly paced. Seeing what can be done with costumes and set on a limited budget is truly inspiring.

Johnson and Perlman play the lovable losers with such gusto we are perfectly willing to forget that these are stock characters. And the female leads, Couch, Gambatese and Kotula, also bring life to their feisty but predictable characters. Ramey, Stanley and John Fico as the shoe-wielding Nikita Khrushchev all capture the paranoia and ridiculous posturing of Soviet-era politicos. Add a terrific ensemble, and who could ask for more?

But there is much more. Iron Curtain not only tweaks the silliness of Soviet pretensions, it also parodies the lavish Hollywood musical ("If Not For Musicals") as well as Broadway ("Eleven O'Clock Number"). Whether you love musicals, hate Communists or just want to have a great time, head over to the Baruch Performing Arts Center - and enjoy!

Postscript to the Original Review and Song List posted below
It was great fun to see Iron Curtain again. The songs and order in which they are presented is the same as in the original, except that in Act 1 "The Pitch" replaced "The Interrogation" -- which is fine. I do, however, have two quibbles with this welcome reprise at Baruch Center. The new space gives the terrfic cast a stage that's twice as big as the one where I first saw it five years ago which is also fine except that the orchestra is now in back of the performers instead of in back of the audience and occasionally drowns out Peter Mills' excellent lyrics, despite the fact that the performers are now miked. That said, the staging overall has been enhanced and the current cast benefits from a truly show-stopping performance by Bobby Kotula as Hildred.

The show is still too long, with the first act most in need of some judicious cutting. This slowdown in pace towards the end of the first act becomes even more noticeable in the better paced second act.

-- Elyse Sommer

Current Production Notes
Iron Curtain
Book by Susan DiLallo
Music by Stephen Weiner
Lyrics by Peter Mills
Directed by Cara Reichel and choreographed by Christine O'Grady
Cast: Maria Couch , Jenn Gambatese,, Marcus Neville, David Perlma, Aaron Ramey, Gordon Stanley.The ensemble includes Sara Brophy, Ronn Burton, Clint Carter, John Fico, Andrea McCullough, James Patterson, Robby Sharpe and Aubrey Sinn. Musical supervision and orchestrations: Remy Kurs
Musical director: Brandon Sturiale
Scenic design: Brian Prather
Costume design: Sidney Shannon
Lights: Doug Harry
Sound: Andy Leviss design
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes, one intermission
The Prospect Theater Company by special arrangement with Fireboat Productions
The Baruch Performing Arts Center, Baruch College at East 25th Street between Lexington and Third Avenue
From 11/5/11; 11/27/11
Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm
Tickets are $50, with premium seating available for $65
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Nov. 8, 2011
The Original Review by Elyse Sommer
Ah! what a sorry state I'm in;
Split! Like the city of Berlin
--- Hildret, the teutonic director who lusts for one of the kidnapped American songsmiths and ends up wondering wistfully " Is it true what they say? A frau divided. . .must fall!"
Instead of a small town barn, the Prospect Theater Company, has brought their let's put on a show spirit to the tiny theater on the second floor of a church on Manhattan's upper West Side. Iron Curtain, the company's new 1950s era musical comedy about a pair of wannabe Broadway songsmiths kidnapped by the KGB to inject some Yankee pizzazz into a USSR propaganda musical.

This show has no big name performers or glitzy sets with smoke, mirrors and chandeliers. What it does have is a deliciously ditzy book by Susan Dilallo, song after melodic song by Stephen Weiner with devilishly clever lyrics by Peter Mills. And talent galore to sing and dance up a storm without any amplification. That chance to hear a full-fledged book musical performed without head mikes or any other gadgetry to interfere with the natural voices, is in itself a rare enough pleasure unlikely to be part of the scheme of things in the event some producer decides to give this fun show the legs for a longer commercial run.

For a small budget show, Iron Curtain boasts a large cast (14 strong) as well as a 9-piece orchestra neatly tucked away in a space at the side of the stage, and a multi-level set complete with roll-out props for various locations by Nick Francone. You have to see the size of the stage to really appreciate Francone's versatility.

Under Cara Reichel's direction the zany plot takes composer Murray (Jeff Edgerton) and his best friend and partner pencil-chewing lyricist Howard (Marcus Neville) from one premeditatedly silly situation to another: first auditioning their latest venture for a New York producer; visiting Howard's girlfriend Shirley (Maria Couch) at the restaurant where she waitresses; answering a mysterious ad from a producer named Onanov (Gordon Stanley) and landing mouths taped and hands tied in the USSR, courtesy of Schmearnov (Larry Brustofski), Onanov's prop assistant whose equipment comprises all manner of kidnapping (and worse) paraphernalia. In Russia, they meet a riding crop yielding teutonic director named Hildret (Bethe B. Austin whose name is another sly bit of punning) and Masha, a Russian blonde bombshell (Jessica Grove) with whom Murray falls in love.

While more than a little reminiscent of The Producers, this big little show also resembles those golden oldie Road movies starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. But for all the premeditated silliness, the songs are so tightly woven into the plot that it's hard to break out any one as a free-standing hit -- shades of The Threepenny Opera in which one one song, "Mac the Knife", became a breakout number. As long as I'm bringing up Threepenny , Hildret's "A Frau Divided" is marvelously Brechtian, though there's also plenty of sweetness to offset such dark, noirish humor -- notably Shirley's " Missing. ".

As with Prospect's memorable The Pursuit of Persephone (music & lyrics by Mills and directed by Reichel --review), Iron Curtain would benefit from some judicious trimming -- dropping a stanza here and there and since, the songs so effectively elucidate the character conflicts and situations, tightening the spoken dialogue.

I'm posting this review more than half way through it's run, so plan to catch it before it's final curtain and don't bank on it having that future life it deserves.

Music by Stephen Weiner
Lyrics by Peter Mills
Book by Susan Dilallo
Directed by Cara Reichel
Choreographed by Christine O'Grady
Cast: Jeff Edgerton (Murray), Marcus Neville (Howard), Gordon Stanley (Onanov), Larry Brustofski (Schmearnov), Maria Couch (Shirley), Bethe B. Austin (Hildret), Jessica Grove (Masha), Amber Dow (Olga / Ensemble),Dara Seitzman (Ticket Agent / Ensemble), Doug Shapiro (Producer / Underling / Ensemble), Brad York (Khrushchev / Cop / Ensemble) , Robby Sharpe (Desk Clerk / Ensemble), David S. Miller (Super ! Ensemble), Rich Silverstein (Border Guard / Ensemble)
Set Design: Nick Francone
Costume Design: Sidney J. Shannon
Lighting Design: Stephen Arnold
Sound Design: Yoshi D. Lee
Music Director: Daniel Feyer
Running time: 2 1/2 hours, with one 15 minute intermission
Prospect Theater Company at West End Theatre 263 West 86th Street (Broadway/West End Avenue in the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, second floor)212-352-3101
From 4/08/06 to 4/30/06.
Thu to Sat at 8pm; Sun at 3pm.
Tickets: $18; $15 students/seniors
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 16th matinee performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Prologue / Ensemble
  • Sorriest Team Around / Murray, Howard, Shirley
  • The Ministry of Musical Persuasion / Onanov, Schmearnov, Ensemble
  • Missing / Shirley
  • The Lapov Luxury /Schmearnov, Ensemble
  • Sorriest Team Around (Reprise) / Murray, Howard
  • Harvest Moon Masha, Ensemble
  • Missing (Reprise) / Shirley
  • We'll Make It / Murray, Howard, Onanov, Masha, Ensemble
  • The Party Line / Schmearnov, Hildret, Masha
  • The Interrogation / Hildret, Howard
  • We Made It / Murray, Howard
  • Act I Finale / Ensemble
Act Two
  • That's Capital / Masha, Onanov, Murray, Ensemble
  • Half a World Away / Howard, Murray
  • Five Year Plan /Murray
  • A Frau Divided / Hildret
  • If Not for Musicals / Onanov, Ensemble
  • Eleven O'Clock Number / Hildret, Howard, Murray, Masha, Ensemble
  • Finale /Ensemble
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