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Opelka, who’s fluent in Russian, has a long-standing relationship with the Academic Theater. He first worked with it in 1993 when the theater produced his musical The Three Musketeers (it ran for four years). This time around, Opelka recommended that the Academic Theater bring over an American production team. So, New York-based director Michael Unger and Los Angeles choreographer Patti Colombo will join Opelka in Yekaterinburg. This is Unger and Colombo’s first time working in Russia, and neither speak the language.
“Of course language is a huge barrier,” says Opelka. “You’re working through interpreters all the time. There are also unique idiosyncrasies. Most of the performers have worked at the same theater for their entire life. They’re like a large family.” When Opelka received the cast list for The Duchess of Chicago, more than half of the cast had also performed in The Three Musketeers 19 years ago.
There are also cultural barriers to navigate. Opelka recalls arriving for a rehearsal for The Three Musketeers when no one else showed up. “It was the day of the egg, a national Russian holiday that no one had told me about.”
The Duchess of Chicago is about culture clash in the late 1920s. Mary Lloyd is the daughter of Chicago’s "sausage king." When she and her friends take a trip to Europe, they make a bet to see who can buy the most exotic item in Europe. In her search, Mary falls in love with Prince Sándor Boris of Sylvaria, a fictional, bankrupt European country. Mary ends up buying Sylvaria, but tensions arise when her love of jazz clashes with the country’s traditional Viennese waltz. “It’s all very lighthearted," says Opelka. "But it’s about this idea that Americans think they can buy whatever they want. It’s funny because we’re bringing over a team of Americans to produce the show in Russia.”
Opelka, Unger, Colombo, and Kirill Sprezhmev, artistic director at the Academic Theater, begin rehearsals next week.