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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No 'Annie Spread Your Legs' in '42nd Street'

It was less than an hour before curtain time Friday night, and backstage at the one-time Soviet Palace of Youth, cheery chorus girls from Miami and Maryland were scarfing down a last few McDonald's fries. Mark Bramble, however, was too furious to eat.

In a few minutes, the Tony Award-winning revival of "42nd Street" that he co-wrote would have its Russian stage debut, the first Broadway show to appear here in English. Promoters were touting this as a major post-Soviet moment, the arrival of a world-class musical as the latest cultural milestone in Russia's decade-long transition to capitalism. All over the city billboards were advertising "Broadway in Moscow!" and a crowded house of VIPs was soon to arrive for the first glimpse of "42nd Street," complete with an American cast, the original award-winning choreography and lots of schmaltzy songs.

But backstage, Bramble was thinking about the clash of cultures, not the collaboration of them. He had just spent days learning about what happens when Broadway comes to Russia and had quickly found that the American dream doesn't translate easily. Rather than a great triumph of American musical comedy, he now feared, "42nd Street" had become a case study in the Russian way of doing business.

The sets weren't ready, the costumes not yet finished. The previews had all been canceled, and the cast had never even done a complete run-through of the complicated extravaganza. The sound system needed checking -- as would become painfully apparent an hour later. Bramble, a protege of the late showman David Merrick and co-author of such Broadway hits as "Barnum," blamed the Russian team producing the show. "A train wreck," he moaned, "a dream come true that's filled with nightmares."

The Russians, he said, "want to do it their way. They don't want instruction or to profit from the knowledge we have from doing the show for 27 years."

Most infuriating of all, Bramble had learned just a few days before that Moscow was apparently not yet ready for an English-only Broadway show. The musical's Russian producers had panicked about the size of their investment in the show -- at a reported $5 million, it will be the most expensive production ever mounted here -- and decided to include a Russian translation over headphones. "They told me that a Russian audience will reject it if it isn't in Russian," Bramble said.

Bramble had parts of the translation read to him.

"It was totally unacceptable," he said, "and did not reflect the spirit of the show. I had to stamp my foot and make them throw it out and start over."

A character called "Anytime Annie" in the English version had become "Annie Spread Your Legs." "References to hookers and Viagra were littered throughout the script," he said.

One line, someone saying to a chorus girl: "Hey Ethel -- must have been hard on your mother not having any 'children,'" was changed to: "Hey, Ethel, too bad your mother didn't get an abortion."

"It was clear that it was in the hands of people who simply could not understand the show," Bramble said before dashing off to put on his tuxedo. "You couldn't be more innocent than '42nd Street' is. It's G-rated, all about the spirit of innocence that is the American dream. And the American dream is not Annie Spread Your Legs."

The other Americans hanging around backstage before the opening were just as stunned as Bramble.

"It's been very, very frustrating," said Nicholas Howey, whose Gaithersburg-based company Troika Entertainment hired the American cast and brought them to Moscow. "Sets, lighting -- you name it. This country is going to be terrific, it's going to be fabulous, but it's a rough ride getting there."

Over in the dressing room for the chorus line, fresh-faced dancers interrupted their makeup session for a hilarious rendition of their introduction to Russia. They described long delays, lots of miscommunication. "It's because they've never done a Broadway show before," said Nicole Sotto, a 21-year-old dancer from Miami. "They didn't know what it was. It's all eye candy."

Darting past the Americans, just minutes left till show time, Russian producer Boris Krasnov was still fielding calls on his cellphone and in no mood to entertain questions about "42nd Street" as cultural battleground. And he certainly had no interest in explaining why the show was lurching toward such a chaotic debut. "Look, we chose a very difficult show," he said. "It's not 'A Chorus Line.'"

Krasnov defended the Russian-language translation, saying Bramble had freaked out about an early version, and said his vision of the show was very simple. "Moscow has never had such a professional troop playing here," he bragged.

And indeed, when the lights finally went up -- curtain time was nearly an hour late -- the American cast and Russian orchestra proved to be first-rate.

The costumes and sets were considerably less so, however. Spotlights several times hit the wrong person, or lingered just a bit too long in the wrong place. And the sound system was nothing less than a disaster, with many of the show's patented big numbers all but inaudible.

In the vast hall, the audience was a quintessentially New Russian crowd, with over-the-top beaded dresses and lots of neck-craning to catch celebrities like Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Iosif Kobzon.

They didn't seem to mind the glitches or the absence of a Russian translation -- Bramble had forbidden them to use the first version and a revised one was not yet finished. But it was also clear that it would take a native English speaker to get many of the show's best lines. Many obvious gags got only a token chuckle from the most fluent English speakers in the crowd, and some things -- like the song about a man, a woman, a stork and a honeymoon in Niagara Falls -- seemed likely never to translate.

And indeed, many attendees at the opening night were skeptical about how this version of the American dream would be received here.

"It would be much better if they had Russian translation," said Natasha Sherbanenko, editor of Profil magazine, as the glittering Moscow crowd sipped champagne and free hors d'oeuvres during intermission.

Her colleague, Natalya Belogolovtseva, the magazine's culture writer, raised perhaps a more serious problem for a city that takes its theater seriously. "Honestly, there are more interesting shows in Moscow than '42nd Street,'" she said. "The problem's not the language, it's the show."

But still, this was a major event in Moscow, evidence for at least the older generation of just how far the city has come.

"I never thought that such a show could be in our country, ever," said Larisa Golubkina, a well-known Soviet-era film and stage actress, who recalled her own days in the 1970s traveling to New York to see Broadway productions and knowing that such glitz was forbidden to the Soviet audience. "I'm envious for the young people today, they get to play in such shows."