Review: "Beardo" is Weirdo and That's Good Enough For Me
OnStage New York Critic
"Royalty, peasantry, sex, dirt, grandeur and hemophilia" is how the latest musical brain-child of Dave Malloy is billed on the Pipeline Theatre Company's website. I found it an apt description of the Russian indie rock show now playing at the extraordinarily beautiful (and fully operational) St. John's Lutheran Church in Brooklyn.
If you've been lucky enough to see Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, you're familiar with Malloy's particular brand of music and theatre-making. Part riff on Rasputin, part multi-musical genre journey --Beardo chronicles the strange, albeit fictionalized, life of Rasputin.
Grigori Rasputin was known for many things: his mystic powers, his role as advisor to Czar Nicholas II of Russia (and his wife, Czarina Alexandra) in the early 1900's, his ability to influence some of St. Petersburg's prestigious aristocrats, the ire that invoked in everyone else, and lest we forget, his sexual escapades and dismemberment of his genitalia upon his assassination.
Now picture that in musical form. Makes about as much sense as the first seventy pages of "War and Peace" as a musical, right? However, when in the more than capable, wildly creative hands of Malloy and collaborators, the historical re-imaginings, while clearly still in later stages of development, is an entertaining and fascinating evening of theatre.
So much about this production works well: the space itself sets the show up for success before the show even begins. The Neo-Gothic church (1891) is a gorgeous space featuring blue vaulted ceilings, and a mezzanine with the original pipe organ that is wonderfully incorporated during a moment where the cast suddenly grows by 60 plus members for one scene only, portraying uprising Russian peasants.
The cast is exemplary and, not unlike "Great Comet," the ensemble always includes actor/musician/performers who have been graced with, it seems, more than their fair share of artistic talent. These performers all have phenomenal voices but they're different—not Broadway cookie-cutter, but real people with beautiful, different sounds that also oh-you know, happen to play the ukulele and guitar.
A small but beautiful detail that amplified the mystery surrounding the show was the lack of a program at the beginning--you were only offered a program upon exiting. The deliberate, measured choice to curate an audience's experience allows them to enter and live in the world without the bombardment of actor Instagram accounts and websites and resumes. For me, this eschewing of theatrical norms and license to walk into an unknown world to hear an unfamiliar story was a great gift.
What didn't work for me was nit-picky. The repetition employed throughout the score and book is cute the first time, "poison him with poison!" but I suspect would fall flat with repeated viewings. While consistent throughout the piece it made me wonder if it was used deliberately or for lack of anything new to say. The seating was a bit challenging given the scaffolding lining house left. Many of the scenes play out atop the scaffolding, and in one instance, behind and above the audience in the mezzanine. My seats in the second row just left of center were great for close-up facial expressions and feeling a part of the action, but in this small space I'd guess most people would feel that regardless of location. Sitting in the middle of the space would yield the best experience given the beautiful and unique staging and avoid that nasty little crick in my neck from straining to see scenes placed high on the scaffolding.
I bought my tickets to "Beardo" after seeing "Great Comet" and I'll always seek out a Malloy show from now on. It's a guaranteed unique, high value and immensely original experience. Besides, where else will you hear a song sung with only a ukulele accompaniment about Rasputin's infamous genitalia?