REVIEWS: Tovarich

"Tovarich" - Best Since "My Fair Lady"
Peter Filichia's Diary
Theatre October, 2008

This week, I’m looking forward to catching up with Tovarich at Musicals Tonight! I’m very interested in seeing this show that I’ve seen before – and have not seen before.

That’s enigmatic, to be sure, so let me explain by returning us back to February 20, 1963, when, as a 16-year-old, I went to the Colonial Theatre in Boston to see my second-ever pre-Broadway tryout. (My first was 11 months earlier – when I saw I Can Get It for You Wholesale; a bit more on that one later).

I’m sure I was the only person in the theater – if not the entire run of the show – who went to Tovarich not knowing who star Vivien Leigh was. Yes, of course, she was a household name from her Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind – but, remember, in those days, there were no videotapes or DVDs, and at that point in time, GWTW, as it was chummily known, was too important a picture to deign to go on TV. That wouldn’t happen until 1976, so GWTW was only seen when it was reissued to theaters every seven years. In its previous re-release in 1960, my mother deemed me too young to see it. Thus, she was unknown to me.

So it wasn’t Leigh, but Alta Maloney of the Boston Traveler – the newspaper my family got at home – that made me hot to see Tovarich (a Russian word for “comrade”). Her review was headlined (I’m not kidding): “Best Since My Fair Lady!” before she went on to laud director Delbert Mann’s production.

I bought a first balcony, $4.40 Wednesday matinee ticket during my school vacation, and was in the midst of a houseful of matinee ladies who applauded appreciatively when Leigh came on Tatiana, a waif of a woman who strolled through the streets of Paris -- shoplifting. She took a baguette from a bakery, and when saw a passerby with a bigger baguette sticking out of her grocery bag, she replaced it with her smaller one.

And why were the poised and elegant-looking fingers of Tatiana sticky ones? Because, as she and husband Mikail (Jean Pierre Aumont) sang in their first song, “Her Highness and Her Husband,” they were now penniless if royal Russian émigrés, thanks to the Communist Revolution that had displaced them a couple of years before. (Luckily for me, my high school history class had recently got to 1917, or I would have really had no idea what Tovarich was talking about.) Mikail and Tatiana were now so broke that he was told by one of his trusty advisers (played by John Emery) to get a job. Mikail said he wasn’t qualified, because all he knew how to “do” was be a prince. And he reminisced,

While sitting the garden granting pardons
Reclined against the palace balustrade
He levies a few taxes,
And then he just relaxes.
Oh, that’s the life for which a prince was made.

He also longs to lecture Russian peasants
On temperance, in sex and alcohol
But after much conjecture
I feel that such a lecture
Would not be popular in France at all.

Now just suppose a prince becomes a waiter
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 top-notch work, and I was soon diving into my $1 souvenir booklet to find out who wrote it: A woman named Anne Croswell, whose lyrics were set by composer Lee Pockriss, who had written one composition I knew: “(It was an) Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.” This music sure didn’t sound like that song, and the lyrics, needless to say, were much better.

Tatiana and Mikail’s friend Natalia (Taina Elg) told them “Opportunity Knocks,” a song that may have been good, but not the way that Elg was doing it; she seemed not at all interested in what she was saying or doing. Finally it was over, and the couple took her advice and went to see the Davises – two wealthy Americans who were looking for a butler and a maid. Mrs. Davis was played by Louise Kirtland, and you’re pardoned if you never heard of her. But if the name of the actor who portrayed Mr. Davis doesn’t ring a bell, I don’t want to know you: He was no less than George S. Irving, then celebrating his 20th year in musical theater, and now still going strong, as proved by his recent stint as the seedy Marlowe in Enter Laughing: The Musical.

The Davises had two teenaged kids, George (Byron Mitchell) and Helen (Margery Grey), and they soon respectively fell in love with maid Tatiana and butler Mikail. That led to Tovarich’s most discussed number, “Wilkes-Barre, P.A.” in which George taught Tatiana how to Charleston. What heaven it was watching Leigh and the audience applauding “Scarlett” for singing and dancing to the peppy tune.

One of my theatrical bar-mitzvahs occurred during Helen’s attempt to seduce Mikail. Not only was he married, but he was also aware that he was much too old for the lass – so he kept saying in song, “No! No! No!” The real revelation for me occurred when he asked, “What would your mother say?” and Helen replied, “She’d be jealous.” The torrent of knowing laughter that greeted this lyric astonished me, for I’d always thought that once women were married, they never gave another man another thought. (Remember, I was very young then.) What a shock to find that women did not check their fantasies at the altar on their wedding day.

Another bar-mitzvah occurred in a party scene, taking place in quite a regal room, filled with French doors and windows that dwarfed the inhabitants below. My surprise occurred when I could see the top of the scenery shaking as it came on. In my 10 or so previous trips to musicals, that hadn’t ever happened.

All right, I didn’t like the first-act closer, called “Kukla Katusha” -- do you think you would have, either? – but Tovarich was a decent enough entertainment, and in those days, I was still having a fabulous time at every musical I attended. Leigh’s ballads were lovely, and the swirling waltz she had with her husband is still one of my favorites.

I don’t know what the opening night reviews were like for the show, because in Arlington, Massachusetts, there was no outlet – or at least none of which I knew – that sold the New York papers. I had to wait a couple of months until Theatre Arts magazine appeared on our newsstand – and was I shocked to see what had happened to Tovarich.

For one thing, the reviewer sure didn’t compare the show to My Fair Lady. More to the point, the director was now listed as Peter Glenville, and John Emery and Taina Elg were no long listed in the cast, but replaced by Alexander Scourby and Louise Troy. Finally, at least in the latter case, I understood: Elg learned soon before the matinee I attended that she was losing her job. She will now and forever be the first performer I ever saw Walk Through a Role.

More surprises were in store when the cast album came out. Now in those days, a musical would open on Broadway and its recording would follow within two weeks. But though Tovarich had opened on March 18, 1963, neither April nor May yielded and album. June came and went without a disc, too, and not until the last week of July did I go into Jordan Marsh – Boston’s department store with the best cast album selection – and found Tovarich waiting for me there on Capitol Records. (I’d later learn the delay was caused because no record company had invested in Tovarich, and that none wanted to record the show. Only after Leigh won a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical did Capitol take a chance.)

More shocking, still, was the list of songs. No “Her Highness and Her Husband,” “Opportunity Knocks,” or “Kukla Katasha.” Instead were names of songs I certainly didn’t hear in Boston: “Stuck with Each Other,” “That Face,” and “Make a Friend.” And that’s when I officially learned What Can Happen During and After the Pre-Broadway Tryout. You see, when I saw I Can Get It for You Wholesale on March 10, 1962, it was only 12 days away from its Broadway opening – and was frozen. The disc I got matched what I’d seen word-for-word (except for a lyric involving “son-of-a-bitch” that was replaced by one citing “a heel.”) Tovarich hardly was frozen, but apparently in a state of slush.

Give the producers credit. They didn’t believe what Alta Maloney said, and preferred to pay heed to Elliott Norton of the Record-American and Kevin Kelly of the Boston Globe – both of whom, I’d later learn, felt that Tovarich was only the best since Portofino. But don’t give all the producers credit. One of them later was indicted, convicted, and sent to jail for stealing far more than a baguette. The other producers spent much of the 264-performance, three-theater run using "Best since My Fair Lady!"  in the ABC-ads.

So now I’m looking forward to seeing the show I saw and didn't see in 1963 -- and see what I think of it 45-plus years later. Hope to see you there on opening night at Musicals Tonight!

TOVARICH November 3, 2008
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

When the musical version of Tovarich based on the Jacques Deval-Robert E. Sherwood play opened in 1963, it had the bad luck to appear during a newspaper strike. However, the performance of the non-singing Vivien Leigh as the Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrovna wowed critics and audiences alike, particularly Leigh’s rendition of the Charleston. The show has not had a New York revival until now. Musicals Tonight! has tweaked the book by David Shaw (Redhead) and restored eight songs by Lee Pockriss and Anne Croswell that never made it to Broadway. The results are a sophisticated and elegant period musical that is a total delight.

Thomas Sabella-Mills’ direction has obtained three-dimensional performances from his entire cast, not a small feat in a light musical comedy. He has also created clever dances for this concert staging. As Russian nobility, Barbara McCullough and Al Pagano are utterly charming. Pagano also does terrific work as stage fight director for the very convincing fencing match. They are given a run for their money by Laura Beth Wells who exudes exoticism and sex appeal from every pore as their countrywoman and friend Natalia Mayovskaya. The entire ensemble for this concert staging is so well prepared that the cast never needs to look down at the scripts in hand. Musical director and vocal arranger James Stenborg has performed a yeoman service restoring the trunk songs to their true glory.

Set in 1927, Tovarich tells the story of the Grand Duchess Tatiana (McCullough) and her consort Prince Mikhail Alexandrovitch Ouratieff (Pagano) who find themselves impoverished and in Paris after the Russian Revolution. As they are the keepers of four billion francs entrusted to them by the late Tsar Nicholas, they are of interest to both the Bank of France and the Soviet government. When they discover that the police are turning their backs when they steal food and that a Soviet spy is hot on their trail, they decide to take positions as butler and maid at the home of banker Charles Davis and his wife Grace, renaming themselves “Tina” and “Michel.” Everything works out until the Davises give a dinner party for an oil cartel and Tina and Michel’s cover is blown by their guests as well as Soviet Commissioner Gorotchenko whom they have been trying to avoid.

The score by composer Pockriss and lyricist Croswell contains an interesting mix of love songs, ballads, and patter songs. Pockriss’ melodic music is often set to waltz rhythms as well as Russian tempos and twenties jazz. On the original cast album the best songs are A Small Cartel, Nitchevo, and The Way It Used to Be. However, as McCullough and Pagano are better singers than Leigh and her co-star Jean Pierre Aumont, many of the other songs (with hints of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady and Gigi, those archetypal period musicals) are more effective than as previously heard. Tatiana’s I Know the Feeling (with its Jacques Brel sound) and Tatiana and Mikhail’s duet, All for You, now seem like real finds. Mikhail’s second act solo, Managed, which appeared in the original production but was not recorded, gives Pagano a wonderful soliloquy, much in the style of the title song to Gigi.

Among the restored songs that impress are Tatiana’s impassioned, I Refuse, Mikhail’s sweet, Lullaby for a Princess, and their duets, Her Highness and Her Husband and Poor Little Coffee Pot, possibly cut from the original production because of Leigh and Aumont’s musical weaknesses. As the cabaret singer Natalia Mayovskaya, luscious Wells brings down the house with the new, Opportunity (Knocks), as well as the previously recorded That Face.

Ronald E. Hornsby and Dana Domenick as the Davis children, who develop crushes on Tina and Michel respectively, give delightful performances of Stuck with Each Other and Uh-Oh. Steven Ted Beckler and Shorey Walker as the Davis parents make the most of their clever duet, Say You’ll Stay in which they offer Tina and Michel all their hearts can desire if they will take the jobs. And the witty patter song A Small Cartel, which includes Beckler and Walker as well as members of the ensemble, continues to end the first act on a high note. Although Roger Rifkin has no songs as Commissar Gorotchenko, he brings his very able authority to bear on the events of the plot.

The musical team of Pockriss and Croswell are also responsible for the delightful musical version of The Importance of Being Ernest, entitled Ernest in Love, which Musicals Tonight! revived two seasons ago to much acclaim. With Tovarich, a seemingly lost musical, Musicals Tonight! has moved up to a new level with a sophisticated and elegant evening that should restore the reputation of this nearly forgotten but charming musical.

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