Yes, it’s an unlikely oddity — a cabaret act built off a patter song and filled with a series of rambling non sequiturs — but to Mark Nadler’s endearing and at times insanely entertaining “Russian on the Side,” resistance is ultimately futile. Taking the audience on a soundbite bio-tour of nearly 50 Russian composers, while really providing an excuse for his own, often oddball interpretations of mostly obscure American showtunes, Nadler manages to create his own logic for a goofy, musically brilliant tour de shtick.
Billed in this commercial Chicago run as a pre-Broadway engagement, the show reps a new incarnation of Nadler’s successful cabaret act “Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians),” with that title lifted from the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin song from 1941’s “Lady in the Dark.”
The new title reflects that the Russian composers are not so much the evening’s entree as an accompaniment, although the educational exercise at work — Nadler teaches the audience a little about each of the composers in the Gershwin lyric — does provide just enough coherence and substance. Nadler occasionally demonstrates Russian influence on American music, reflecting on how once-prominent composers are now forgotten and the fickleness of fame. But mostly he just finds a funny way to connect a series of otherwise unconnected songs.
Nadler’s style is unique and hard to describe, yet still a recognizable type of old-fashioned pure entertainment. There’s definitely a lot of Danny Kaye, which Nadler obviously embraces in both song selection (including “The Ugly Duckling”) and beyond, mixing in physical humor by splaying himself all over his grand piano. There’s also a lick of Liberace’s campy flamboyance, while the show’s semi-Vaudevillean form probably best correlates to piano virtuoso- jokemeister Victor Borge.
Nadler challenges the audience to keep up as he bounces from brief biographies of Mikhail Glinka or Modest Mussorgsky to singing “Very Soft Shoes” from “Once Upon a Mattress” (which, in probably the giddiest highlight of the show, he accompanies with a genuine soft shoe dance while also expertly tinkling the ivories).
The bizarre chain of thought goes, for example, something like this: Prokofiev composed the ballet version of “Romeo and Juliet,” which is about teenagers, who are by definition insane (cue a projection of the brain on the back wall). Carol Hall, the composer of “Best Little Whorehouse In Texas,” is sane, and wrote the song “Only a Broken Heart,” which Nadler then sings, deliciously, as if he were giving advice to Romeo.
OK, it’s a stretch, and this show is one such stretch after another.
But one must really give Nadler credit, because over time (starting after the floundering first 20 minutes preceding his jazzy take on “Kansas City” from “Oklahoma!”), he genuinely manages to turn all this into something that makes a lot of sense. We follow his meanderings wherever he leads, and they lead through corny jokes into plenty of great songs, performed with an always-intriguing mixture of panache and silly melodrama.
There may be a destination, but it’s all about the ride.