There’s a decent musical buried somewhere in “Iron Curtain,” a song-and-dance spoof of Cold War communism whose style is as old-fashioned as its politics. Songwriters Peter Mills and Stephen Weiner aim for the lighthearted fun of golden-age tuners like “Damn Yankees,” when Broadway songs were hummable hits and the plot could always make room for a tap routine. Once or twice, they do provide some breezy entertainment, but otherwise their material — not to mention the belabored production — groans with effort.
The first scene belies the show’s biggest problem. We’re introduced to a group of communists in 1950s Russia who need a new musical to promote the party. Hijinx ensue as a comrade named Onanov (Gordon Stanley) lives up to his name and decides to hunt for songwriters on Broadway. But that means, of course, that we already know he’s working for Krushschev (Brad York). Within moments, “Iron Curtain” has tipped its hand.
Therefore, when we meet down-on-their-luck songwriters Murray (Jeff Edgerton) and Howard (Marcus Neville), we know exactly where they’re headed. Most of act one, however, aims for laughs by keeping the duo in the dark. In clever songs like “The Lapov Luxury,” they somehow miss all the clues about who their employers are, despite references to cold weather, state-sanctioned torture and feasts of potatoes and beets.
These early numbers are pleasant enough, boosted by Mills’ witty lyrics and Christine O’Grady’s inventive choreography. They might be more engaging, however, if the audience were allowed to discover the red-tinted truth along with Murray and Howard. Instead, we are forced to step back and observe characters discovering what we already know.
That distance thwarts the obvious intention to make Murray and Howard into sympathetic every-guys. Mills and Weiner (along with book writer Susan DiLallo) always keep us ahead of them, and if we already know that they’re going to finish the show and get the girl (there are love interests, of course), it’s difficult to care when they finally do.
It’s also hard to laugh at jokes when we’re told exactly where the punch lines are. Director Cara Reichel begs for reactions by guiding her actors toward obnoxious caricature. There’s a particularly exhausting reliance on hammy Russian accents, which render dialogue unintelligible as actors try to wring one more chuckle out of wacky pronunciations.
To be fair, the production doesn’t really get worse as it goes along. But what plays like a misguided trifle in act one becomes oppressively uninteresting after 2½ hours. If “Iron Curtain” is going to have a future, it needs a judicious revision that doesn’t work so hard to prove we’re being entertained.