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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'The Game': It's a Cultural Thing

I am not one to knock success. Too hard, anyway.

That little confession is wrested from me by Pavel Khomsky's production of "The Game," called in the program at the Mossoviet Theater a "musical match in two sessions."

Let's clarify immediately that the kind of "match" intended here is as in chess, not as in "complement," "adequate replacement" or the like.

But before going on with that -- or why I really detested this show -- let's return to the success story, which "The Game" undoubtedly is.

At last weekend's premiere, an overflow house greeted the parting curtain with squeals of delight; the first spotlight came on to a burst of applause. At show's end, the curtain calls provoked a prolonged standing ovation punctuated with whoops and hollers.

The object of the commotion was Alexander Chevsky's "musical fantasy" concocted on the corpses of tunes by the Beatles, Jethro Tull, ABBA and a host of other bands from the '60s and '70s.

Yaroslav Kesler's libretto pursues the contest between a chess champion and his opponent, although that's really little more than an excuse for Viktoria Sevryukova's black-and-white chessboard costumes and the hanging, collapsing chessboards that dominate Alexander Yatsko's sparse set amidst the gaping spaces of the open stage.

This game, while having its full share of pawns, rooks, kings and queens, is essentially being played for fame, dames and power. The Champion (Oleg Kazancheyev), looking nothing like a chess master, appears as a surly rock star hounded by the press, besieged by hordes of adoring fans and tormented by loneliness.

The Champion's opponent, the Pretender (Valery Storozhik), is out for blood, but not nearly as much as his sinister Second (Vyacheslav Butenko), who will stop at nothing to get his own way.

Crossing the battle lines are Gloria (Lada Maris), the Champion's secretary who falls in love with the Pretender, and Rita (Yelena Galliardt), an assistant in the Pretender's team who falls for the Champ.

In the spirit of the genre of the musical, the plot is simplistic to the point of inanity, the burden of proving the show's merit falling on the performers and the music. Which, after noting that most of the voices in this cast are quite impressive, is where we return to the question of matches. One thing is certain, there are a lot of mismatches in this Russian show based on Western rock and pop. Not the least of which are cultural.

It is a fact; the Beatles and those they spawned mean one thing in the West and something altogether different in Russia. Obviously the two experiences are legitimate on their own terms, but, as Kipling might have observed had he lived to experience the rock revolution, the twain between them never shall meet.

British and American rock, like Siamese twins each with its own personality but sharing a single heart, were and occasionally still are a vital, intuitive expression of the shape that the searches for sex, love and happiness -- probably in that order -- take on in every young Brit's or American's hometown. The language, the rhythms, the intonations and the references spring from the streets of Liverpool, Detroit or Asbury Park, New Jersey.

For a Russian, these songs are exotic. Banned and thus seditiously attractive for decades under the bolshevik gerontocracy, they now have freely entered the public domain.

But rather like Tutankhamen's tomb in a New York museum, they remain foreign objects to be admired and deciphered.

I make this digression not out of arrogance, but out of affection -- for the music without which I, an American, might not recognize my own life. I won't go into the complex though bogus notion of "rock-opera," but Chevsky's schmaltzy hatchet-job on the Beatles must be condemned. He dismembered the melodies of such songs as "A Day in the Life," "Piggies," "Eleanor Rigby," "It's Getting Better All the Time" and more, squeezing from them fleeting themes which wend in and out of themes ripped out of other songs, great (The Animals' "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood") and dreadful (take ABBA for instance, please).

It all reaches a chaotic, maddening crescendo as you instinctively struggle to identify the abominated but familiar tunes accompanying new Russian lyrics about black kings, traitorous women and philosophical, dethroned champions.

Thanks to some fine singing from Maris and Galliardt, some appropriately malevolent acting from Butenko and some really snappy legwork by the tight, energetic dance corps, there are merciful moments of respite, although nothing could actually save the score short of destroying it.

Still, before I get too comfortable on my high horse, I have another confession I would like to make.

I learned my Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky on the living room floor in front of the television in the soundtracks to Bugs Bunny cartoons. It's enough to evoke horror among my Russian friends.

So I guess it's a cultural thing, which means I have no problem calling "The Game" a success. If you doubt it, just ask any of the screaming teenage girls who were at the opener.

"The Game" (Igra) plays Saturday Oct. 24 and 31 at 7 p.m. at the Mossoviet Theater, 16 Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa. Tel. 299-2035. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.