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Review: Lyric Stage’s ‘Pleasures and Palaces’


Christopher Carl as Grigori Potemkin and Danielle Estes as Sura in Pleasures and Palaces at Lyric Stage. Photo by Michael C. Foster.

Composer-lyricist Frank Loesser must have loved swindlers. Consider the gamblers and low-lifes in Guys and Dolls. Or the cynical corporate climber in How to Succeed in Business. Basically, Loesser’s main characters connive. Well. He worked on Broadway.

And so it is with Pleasures and Palacesthe long-lost Loesser musical that Lyric Stage has revived. It originally closed in Detroit as a Broadway tryout in 1965 and has never been heard from since. The show is described in theater history books as based on events from the life of John Paul Jones. After becoming a Revolutionary War hero, Jones signed on as an admiral with the Russian navy. And in 1787, Jones’ pluck and Presbyterianism helped break the stalemated Russo-Turkish War.

It’s a culture clash that must have resonated, tongue-in-cheekily, during the Cold War, when Pleasures first appeared: Naive, do-gooding American valor is set against Slavic worldliness, ineptitude and despotism.

But in the musical, Jones is actually just the over-earnest foil to the craven and delightfully deceitful Prince Grigori Potemkin, consort to Catherine the Great. Pleasures is really Potemkin’s show. It’s Potemkin who narrates the musical. His efforts to fake a military victory and his affairs with both Catherine the Great and the promiscuous Sura provide most of the plot complications. Catherine lovingly calls Potemkin “a scoundrel and a clown,” and it’s hard not to think of an actor like Kevin Kline in the role — in his patented, goofy-swashbuckler mode. As Potemkin, Christopher Carl is cheerfully charming and smarmy. He’s more in love with his own splendid swagger than any real accomplishments (one of the first lines he sings: “I am more than merely magnificent!“).

If you told potential audiences, though, that your big Broadway show was about political shenanigans in 18th-century St. Petersburg, the theater box office would contain a vast emptiness not unlike Siberia. So the Jones angle is probably the quickest way to sell the story to history-averse Americans.

All of this background hints at the enjoyments here: how Pleasures and Palaces merrily traffics in the spoofish history and cartoon foreigners so typical of showbiz from the period, and how this setting and these characters permit Loesser — in his brilliant, offhand way — to mix the snap and sophistication of Golden Age Broadway songwriting with rich, ‘Russian’ sounds: kettledrums, chimes, massed male choruses, a mandolin filling in for a balalaika. There is, for instance, a rousing, military-flavored number called “Barabanchik,” about Potemkin’s inner love for glory, if not actual battle. The title derives from the Russian word for ‘drum,’ and all the paradiddles and flourishes lead Potemkin to exclaim, “Rimshot Korsakov!”

Indeed, one of the surprising things about Pleasures and Palaces is how close it is to being a rediscovered gem. Close but definitely not there yet. The Lyric Stage production is a ‘concert’ version, meaning there are no sets or costumes, just chairs and the occasional, necessary prop. This is less costly, certainly less spectacular. We must imagine the splendors that imperial Russia could provide.

But it means Lyric’s music director Jay Dias can do what Lyric does best: showcase Loesser’s gorgeous score with a 40-piece orchestra and some stellar singing voices, both imported (Carl as Potemkin, Bryant Martin as Jones, Luann Aronson as Catherine) and domestic (Brian Mathis as Potemkin’s security chief).

The weaknesses with Pleasures have always been with the book, co-written by Loesser with Sam Spewack, based on Spewack’s flop play. The weaknesses aren’t fatal, though. Sharper comic writing, for instance, would help “button” scenes more effectively. Similarly, the last reprise could be bigger. Or use a different number. The show needs a real finish.

But in one major way, Lyric’s production style seriously hampers the cause. Directed by Ann Nieman, the bare-bones staging actually puts the brakes on the humor and the energy the show relies on. Pacing is crucial because Pleasures, especially in its first act, is very farce-like. It has disguises, con jobs, a faked death, a couple meant to be caught in bed, a drinking contest.

It seems counter-intuitive that a production without any scenery would be slow, but well-designed sets can effect cinematic, split-second scene changes. Here, director Nieman must use blackouts. Repeatedly that means: Lights off, then the actors filter on and move the many chairs about, pause, then the lights come up. The entire show comes to a halt or becomes almost stately — which is pure Nyquil for a comedy. The pace doesn’t always need to attain a farce’s door-slamming urgency, but in the case of a drinking contest between Jones and Potemkin, the timing should be deadpan and quick, like vaudeville blackouts. Nyet, not here. And the show’s dancing, which typically injects energy into a show, doesn’t do the trick, either. But without more rehearsal time, the choreography had, by necessity, to be mostly somewhat generic.

By intermission, one feared Pleasures was going to be dead in the water at the rate it was slowing down. But the second act redeemed things, partly because it has one tremendous number after another: “Barabanchik,” “Tears of Joy,” “Ah, to Be Home Again,” “Pleasures and Palaces,” “What is Life?” And by now, the show is no longer as dependent on comic exposition. Here, the simple, Rockettes-like, march steps of “Barabanchik” synced up with the military fervor of the song. It became a true “11 o’clock number,” the kind of late-in-the-show event that shakes up theatergoers with its life and propulsive power. (Loesser created the greatest of these with “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” in Guys and Dolls.)

Not everything syncs up so perfectly. Sura, Potemkin’s young lover, is an early ’60s sex kitten — one of the characters that, depending on how she’s handled, can seriously date Pleasures. But in the second act, after she’s caught religion — thanks to Jones — and then re-discovered her carnal passions — thanks to Potemkin — she’s given the show’s title song, one of its standouts. “Pleasures and Palaces” is actually a hymn, not to sexual indulgence, but to swanky physical joys in general (“I was made for chic and sheer negligees, cream on my caviar, sable rugs wall to wall”). But Loesser (or his orchestrator) and singer Danielle Estes treat it like a big, brassy anthem, belting out a defiant call to arms. Something more sensual would be much more effective and in keeping with Sura herself, who is hardly a brazen golddigger. She’s less Rosalind Russell in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and more Eartha Kit in “Santa Baby.”

There are hopes that Pleasures and Palaces might have a new life beyond Irving, Texas. With such a reclamation project, the choices are three: Do we retain the ‘dated’ humor and references because the period feel is part of the classic charm of the show? Do we update the book to make it more knowing and contemporary? Or do we keep the material but use the overall production style to comment on it winkingly, put it in quotation marks as camp or retro?

As indicated, Pleasures has tempted people into trying it again after all these years because it seems so close, because Loesser’s score is so sumptuous. Certainly, the show has more jewels in it than many Broadway classics that are repeatedly revived but turn out to have only one or two well-worn numbers worth the wait (Damn Yankees, Oliver!, Pajama Game). Get the right director and choreographer, a sensitive script doctor and a leading actor who, like Carl, can play Potemkin with bumbling bravura — and Pleasures and Palaces could be a real pleasure.

  • http://www.facebook.com/huskcharmer Garrett Kilgore

    You do realize that Rosalind Russell never actually sang “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” That would have been Carol Channing, initially, and Marilyn Monroe in the film.

  • JeromeWeeks

    Of course. I knew that. Yes. Of course. Naturally. I was just … testing everyone. Good for you for catching that. Shame on everyone else for failing.

    I have absolutely no idea what I was thinking. Tourette’s typing, I guess.