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Nadler plays 'Russian on the Side' in a brisk key
Mark Nadler is one of those rare live performers who appears to have taught himself to do anything and everything upon which anyone might ever shine a spotlight. This palpable desire to overachieve is one of his biggest assets and, based on a look at "Russian on the Side,' the accomplished-but-frantic one-man show that Nadler hopes to take to Broadway this fall, his most dangerous liability.
Rest assured that "Russian on the Side" provides enormous value for money. Nadler can play the piano. He can sing. He can do a soft-shoe. Actually, he can play, sing and do a soft shoe all at once. He can lecture on the finer distinctions of the great (and not so great) Russian composers. On Wednesday night at the suddenly energized Royal George Theatre, words flowed from Nadler's mouth with the same rapidity as his fingers raced over the piano, sampling everyone from Rimsky-Korsakov to Rachmaninoff. He keeps the stakes of his show sky-high—like a longtime cabaret star perennially fearful that conversations and the clink of beverages might gain an inappropriate upper hand.
Nadler has developed a remarkable ability to keep a minimalist baseline in motion while simultaneously holding a full-frontal conversation with his audience. He can move in and out of a song—or, often, a fusion of songs—with dazzlingly articulate ease. At times, his body erupts across the top of his piano, a splayed victim of its owner's enthusiasm. And not only does Nadler do nothing without a grandiose flourish, but he also basks in the copious amounts of applause his activities provoke like a grinning cat taking a bath in cream.
All of this comes, at times, within inches of inducing a permanent headache. But, hey, the fine arts sorely need enthusiasts, and there's no doubting Nadler's sincerity nor the fullness of his skills. The premise of this show is that Nadler will teach the audience to recite the lyric to the Danny Kaye patter song (lyrics by Ira Gershwin, music by Kurt Weill) "Tschaikowsky and Other Russians," wherein the lyrics are composed of the names of 50 Russian composers (with a few ringers). His pedagogical method is association—by playing and talking a bit about each of the composers in the song, he'll help us remember them.
And so it goes under Mark Waldrop's direction. Nadler barrels through the list one by one, playing snatches of music and making some esoteric musical connections. That's the show's deeper purpose, really. Nadler wants to reveal how the American songbook is, in fact, a scrapbook of interconnection. True enough.
There are some dramaturgical holes in the show that need fixing before it goes to New York. Nadler never really sets up the context of the original song, leaving some people wondering where the heck it came from. And his smart notions of the interconnectedness of the musical universe need much greater expansion. He might also lose an irritating clicker that drives one completely bananas. But most of all, he needs to settle down, dial it down a few notches, and find more quieter moments to explore. Above all, this potentially distinctive show needs some leavening vulnerability and emotional spontaneity in place of some of the whoop dee do
We know Nadler can do anything much too early and thus it's no surprise when he does it. But it is fun. And educational, to boot.
'Russian on the Side' Mark Nadler tickles ivories and funny bones.
When: Through June 15
Where: Royal George Theatre Center, 1641 N. Halsted St.
Price: $34.50-$55.00 at 312-988-9000 or www.russianonthesideonline.com.