A few minutes into “The Beautiful Lady,” you might find yourself thinking the show owes a little something to “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”: After all, here are, again, a bunch of exalted Russians in a cabaret, singing of life, loss, hope and love.
But “The Beautiful Lady,” a musical by Elizabeth Swados from 1984, is actually the artistic forebear of Dave Malloy’s “Great Comet,” even though it is only just now getting a New York premiere at La MaMa, under Anne Bogart’s evocative direction.
Swados is best remembered for her 1978 show “Runaways” (briefly revived by Encores! Off-Center in 2016, a few months after her death); “The Beautiful Lady” adds to the mounting evidence that she was among the most idiosyncratic and creative composer-lyricists of her generation. (A few years ago Malloy joined the likes of Michael R. Jackson, Taylor Mac and Shaina Taub on the tribute album “The Liz Swados Project.”)
More of a song cycle than a traditionally structured, plot-driven musical, “The Beautiful Lady” is set at the Stray Dog Café, a real-life St. Petersburg cabaret where the owner, Boris Pronin (Starr Busby), hosted such literary luminaries as Anna Akhmatova (Kate Fuglei), Osip Mandelstam (Henry Stram), Marina Tsvetaeva (Ashley Pérez Flanagan) and Alexander Blok (George Abud, from “The Band’s Visit”) in the years leading up to World War I. They’re high on ideas and ideals — and, for some of them, on each other — and dream of a political, sexual and artistic revolution.
Swados and Paul Schmidt, who translated many of those writers’ poems (large chunks of which are incorporated into the show), wrote the book, which was revised by Jocelyn Clarke and serves mostly as a thread linking the songs. And, oh, what wonders those are: vibrant and funny, desperate and elegiac, with some so lovely they will shatter your heart.
Bogart makes the most of La MaMa’s deep stage and creates striking tableaus with little more than a few chairs and tables (Andromache Chalfant did the scenic design) and bold lighting (designed by Brian H. Scott) that focuses on blue and red. The effect is powerfully stark and never overwhelms the humans at the heart of the story.
When they change into gray jumpsuits about midway through, we are reminded how often dreams of revolution have ended in repressive regimes. In the musical’s dreamlike world, the Stray Dog remains open long enough that its denizens face that reality and must resort to gallows humor, telling each other jokes that mine the cruel absurdity of life under Stalinist rule, with its Orwellian Newspeak and thought crimes. (Some of those jokes have been repurposed for Putin; they still work.)
“My lady made of silk and sighs,” Sergei Yesenin (Andrew Polec, a long way from “Bat Out of Hell”) sings in an ode to the American dancer Isadora Duncan, yearning and helpless as his world comes crashing down. “My lady full of laughs and goodbyes.” He might as well be describing — poetically, of course — the spirit of this show.
The Beautiful Lady
Through May 28 at La MaMa, Manhattan; lamama.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
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