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August 16, 2013

Make a Friend with TOVARICH: The Play

No, it’s not the 1963 musical version. But did you ever think you’d see a production of the play TOVARICH?

We’re talking about the 1936 English adaptation that Robert E. Sherwood crafted from French playwright Jacques Deval’s original 1933 play TOVARITCH. On Broadway, the story of two dethroned Russian royals who are now struggling to make a go of it in Paris ran 356 performances; back then, such a stint was enough to make TOVARICH the 74th longest-running play in all of Broadway history. Subsequent productions were plentiful all over the world; you could have probably even found one in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Now, through August 25, we have a rare revival at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Bless artistic director Bonnie J. Monte for finding, reading, liking, scheduling and staging it – superbly, in fact, in her handsome Madison, NJ theater. (It’s only 30 miles from the Plymouth -- now Schoenfeld -- Theatre where the original played.)

Those who know the musical will find that bookwriter David Shaw, composer Lee Pockriss and lyricist Anne Croswell were more interested in delivering surface entertainment. Just as Frank Loesser pruned plenty of political talk from THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED when he created THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, the three TOVARICH collaborators went easy on the strife between the winners and losers of the Russian Revolution. Instead, they stressed the relationships among six characters, starting with Prince Mikaïl Alexandrovitch Ouratieff and his wife, The Grand Duchess Tatiana Pêtrovna. He promised the deposed Tsar that he would guard his substantial fortune and now feels honor bound not to spend a single ruble on his or Tatiana’s needs.

Thus, Mikaïl and Tatiana must go to work as butler and maid when their own money runs out and wind up hired by affluent couple Charles and Grace Davis. Add to them George Davis, their teenage son who falls in (puppy) love with Tatiana, and Helen Davis, their teenage daughter who becomes equally entranced with Mikaïl.

Pockriss, who’d never live down that he co-wrote “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini,” composed many a lovely melody for his characters. Croswell was a top-notch lyricist, too. In Mikaïl’s opening song, she establishes in “I Go to Bed” that he’s unwilling to face reality – and work: “Now just suppose a prince becomes a waiter,” he sings. “One day a baron walks into the room. Now am I prince or waiter? Which duty is the greater? Now you tell me: just who should bow to whom?” That’s nifty work.

Good as the songs were, they simply reiterated how the characters feel about each other. So Mikaïl and Tatiana are still in love – as one could tell from such titles as “The Only One,” “All for You” and, most directly, “You Love Me.” Charles and Grace are so desperate for servants to the point of begging the incognito “Michel” and “Tina” to “Say You’ll Stay” as the butler and maid. (“One of us will bring your bedtime milk,” Charles sings.) These two are semi-ugly Americans – a far cry from the more elegant Europeans that they were as the Duponts in the original play.

George and Helen have the usual teen brother-sister issues (“Stuck with Each Other”) before Michel and Tina give them something else on which they can center their energies. Helen’s efforts to seduce Michel result in his firmly singing “No! No! No!” George has a tiny bit more luck with Tina; at least she’ll let him teach her the new dance that everyone’s doing: the Charleston. In those days when every tank town seemed to have some songwriter immortalizing it, here was one for “Wilkes-Barre, PA.” And if every character didn’t seem pleasant enough, Pockriss and Croswell gilded the musical lily by writing a song called “Make a Friend.” While there were other songs, only one – “The Way It Used to Be” – centered on politics. Conversely, the play spends fewer than 10 minutes dealing with the attraction the kids feel for their servants.

Musical versions tend to run longer than the plays from which they’re adapted, but TOVARICH couldn’t: 264 performances. True, if Vivien Leigh (Tatiana) had not had a nervous breakdown, TOVARICH might have outrun its source. But the world had greatly changed since TOVARICH’s debut in 1936, when the Soviet Union wasn’t yet America’s enemy; at the time, the idea of nobles eventually parting with money and giving it to the Russian people seemed fair and democratic.

Alas, the opening of TOVARICH took place fewer than five months after the Cuban Missle Crisis, when the two countries were embroiled in the coldest of wars. Now TOVARICH’s ending – in which the Sovet coffers were greatly enhanced -- seemed to be a victory for Communism.

Compare this to a 1955 show: SILK STOCKINGS, an adaptation of NINOTCHKA. It was no better a musical than TOVARICH (and perhaps even a worse one), but it was a hit that ran 16 months longer because it reiterated what Broadway audiences wanted to hear: the American lifestyle was far superior to the Soviet one.

Now, with the Soviet Union literally history and our surviving it, we can again make friends with TOVARICH. Thanks to Monte’s excellent production, we see that the original play had a great deal more on its mind than the musical ever did.

Only minutes after the curtain rises there’s a startling scene. A woman who’s to deliver a hat to another apartment dweller mistakenly knocks on the door of Mikaïl (an efficient Jon Barker) and Tatiana (a solid Carly Street). The visitor is Russian, so she recognizes the royals and almost kisses their feet to ask forgiveness for bothering them. Ah, but Tatiana is justifiably suspicious, and Olga makes a mistake that reveals she’s actually a Soviet agent. Here in Madison, Blythe Coons is amazing in the way she goes from obsequious milquetoast to staunch revolutionary. “We know how to take back what was stolen from us,” she snarls. “And when we do, we’ll also take your miserable, worthless, evil lives.”

She leaves, but is almost immediately followed Chauffourier-Dubieff, a Frenchman who’s the governor of the country’s bank, and Count Féodor Brekenski, a Soviet aide-de-camp to the current pretender to the throne. Both want that money! “But it is not mine to give,” says Mikaïl, letting us see how honorable he is in the face of poverty; many a man in his position would feel entitled to some “incidental expenses” for guarding the fortune. Tatiana isn’t above suggesting it.

What turns out to be the main thrust of TOVARICH is that nobility has far less to do with birthright than it has to do with doing the right thing. It’s one reason why Mikaïl and Tatiana refuse to take charity, but prefer to work. And, as good nobles, they don’t want to see “their people” suffer. So perhaps, in the end, they should they give the Tsar’s money to the Soviet Citizens …

In the musical, when Commissar Gorotchenko shows up at the end of Act One at the Davis’ party, the stage direction says that “violence is in the air.” Here in Madison, both John Greenbaum as Brekenski and Anthony Cochrane as Gorotchenko beautifully display no menace but sheer refinement. They want what they want, yes, but they’re content to discuss the matter.

Mikaïl, Tatiana and Gorotchenko have their final confrontation in the Duponts’ kitchen, where Monte has given the scene the quiet power of realistic kitchen sink dramas. And yet, Carly Street expertly shows that – surprise -- Tatiana isn’t so immersed in nobility that she can’t  have a terrorist’s values when she says, “After I have your eyes burned out, Gorotchenko, I’ll make you crawl on your hands and knees to St. Petersburg.”

His measured response? “Leningrad.” Cochrane’s acting is meticulous here in showing that Gorotchenko will not respond in kind with anger, threats or force. Nobility, then, is a state of mind – and one that we should all strive to achieve.

Although there is a question on whether a musical of TOVARICH could have succeeded with its seemingly pro-Communist stance, there is no question that Pockriss and Croswell missed two excellent opportunities to transfer dialogue into song. The first occurs when Mikaïl and Tatiana decide to go into domestic service and to choose to put on a happy face about it. Actually, there WAS a song in TOVARICH at this moment, but one that show doctors Joan Javits and Philip Springer thought to write during the Boston tryout: “You’ll Make an Elegant Butler; I’ll Make an Elegant Maid.” Alas, it was left off the cast album.

But Pockriss and Croswell squandered the chance to write a song that could have been one of the most effective opening numbers of all time. It wasn’t in the play, but in the 1937 film version. Mikaïl (Charles Boyer) and Tatiana (Claudette Colbert) arrive in Paris as discouraged emigres, but find that The City of Light is lit up and as colorful as they’d been led to believe. People are literally dancing in the streets, bands are playing – oh, it’s all they could have hoped for. Every wonderful thing they’ve heard about Paris was true!

Then they find that the celebration isn’t an everyday occurrence. It happens to be July 14th -- Bastille Day: the day that the royalty fell to revolutionaries.

Can’t you see Mikaïl and Tatiana partying like crazy, singing and dancing with ebullience along with everyone else – and then suddenly discovering that they’re celebrating what brought them rack and ruin? I can hear the melody changing from a triumphant major key to a mournful minor key now.

Bet if Bonnie J. Monte had been directing the musical of TOVARICH, she would have been smart enough to suggest it.

         — Peter Filichia

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