Siberia Bound | Our Town | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Our Town

Siberia Bound

New Tuners Theatre Adapts an American Musical for the Soviet Stage


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


"What's ironic is that we're opening in Siberia--and the first musical number is 'South for the Winter,'" says composer Gregg Opelka, laughing.

"And it takes place in Saint Petersburg, Florida," says choreographer Jamie Pachino.

The production team from New Tuners--a workshop founded by the late Byron Schaffer for the development of musical plays-- was busy readying Charlie's Oasis Museum & Bar for its opening in the Soviet city of Omsk on December 15. The New Tuners' initial production, which played for four months at the Theatre Building earlier this year, was attended by Soviet producer Boris Rotberg (in the U.S. visiting his sister in Skokie), who promptly declared, "Send this show to Siberia!" Within weeks the show's creators found themselves reworking their 12-character, one-set play--about the efforts of a group of tourists to save their favorite bar from demolition--to fit into the 1,200-seat Omsk Musical Theater with its 98 by 58 foot stage. The Omsk theater has a 300-member resident company-- including 75 actors, a 35-member ballet corps, and a 65-piece orchestra. "And Boris hopes we can use as many of them as possible, because he wants to give them the work," says Warner Crocker, who will direct the Soviet production.

But why this little workshop-crafted show from the midwest, rather than some better-known work from New York?

"The theater's done American musicals before--Candide, Showboat, Hello, Dolly--but this will be the first original musical play ever done there," says Crocker. "We're cognizant of our responsibility in that capacity. How we work--that's how they will assume not only New Tuners works but many theater companies in the United States work. Also, Boris really liked the theme of the little guys banding together and fighting for their rights against the big corporations."

"There's also the theme of conservation and preserving your history--even if it's just a bar," Opelka says. "He liked that too."

Dale Pesmen, the translator who will accompany the production team, says that the thing Rotberg said made the show so American was "bars--gangsters and bars." (In the play the characters try to have Charlie's Oasis declared a national landmark because it was associated with Al Capone.) "Boris thought it was very charming. Over there, they don't have bars the way we have bars. Just the word 'bar' is such a strong image of everything American."

But Al Capone? "The Soviet translators who did the script we sent over there didn't understand the references to Carol Channing and Pee-wee Herman," says Pesmen, chuckling. "The line 'We had a Sigma Chi chugalug here once' came back to us 'The first locomotive of Sigma Chi passed by here.' But they understood Al Capone. Anywhere in the world, you can mention Chicago and you'll get 'Al Capone! Bang, bang!'"

There were other changes New Tuners had to make in their intimate little homegrown musical. "The situation there is just the opposite of what we have in the United States," Opelka explains. "We had to take a character out for last spring's production because we could only afford to pay so many actors. Now we can put him back in without having to twist the story around. Where the first production had a Landmarks Commission committee of 3 people, there are now 20. Instead of two construction workers, we now have nine, male and female."

"In many ways we're all in the playpen we've always wanted to be in," says Crocker. "Not only do we have more construction workers, but if we wanted to bring a bulldozer out onstage--which we're not going to do, though we'd love to--we could have the crew to carry it on.

"We also have added a softball team who drinks at Charlie's Oasis. And some of what we call generically 'beach boys' and 'beach girls,' so that when we have the lovers' scenes out on the beach, we'll have more actors than just the leads there, and we'll have the atmosphere, environment, and a context that comes from other people being present."

The company will be taking some of their own equipment, in case they can't find something they need in Siberia. "We're taking uniforms and equipment for that whole softball team, and all kinds of bar accoutrements--napkins, stirrers, liquor bottles," says Crocker. "Boris called at three in the morning to tell us to make sure we bring empty liquor bottles with American labels. We couldn't take a pay telephone, and I don't think we'll be able to find an American pay phone there--but I could always be mistaken. We're taking beach umbrellas. And I asked Boris if they had swimsuits, and he said--in a very grave, solemn voice--'Yes, but they don't look American.' So we're taking swimsuits too."

Pachino jumps in. "We were told, 'If you're not sure if you'll need it or not, bring it!' Even things we take for granted, like plastic palm trees. Tom Mitchell is taking the set foliage over to try to show them how to build it."

Two interpreters will be on hand to help with all the translating. "And of course I'll be there as well," says Pesmen. "Mostly to listen, to make sure that what's going on onstage is what Warner wanted."

"I have an advantage," Pachino says, "because everyone learns ballet in French--or I can just show the dancers what I want."

"I have that advantage too," says Tim Pleiman, the orchestrator whose task it is to expand the play's five-instrument score to suit 35 musicians from the theater's resident orchestra. "Music is primarily Italian, and if the conductor doesn't understand my pronunciation, I can always write it down."

"Anyway," says Pachino, "Tim and I can see or hear if something's wrong. But Warner has no way of knowing." Everyone grins at Crocker, who shrugs helplessly. Pachino goes on. "The three of us are all going to be rehearsing in different rooms. And when we thought there would only be one interpreter, we all said, 'Guess who's gonna get that interpreter?'"

"I've always thought of this whole experience as one big adventure," Crocker declares. "It's a wonderful challenge taking a play which will be so foreign to audiences there."

"Omsk is a city of two million people," says Pesmen, "but they don't have as many tourists there as, say, Moscow or Leningrad. It's more like doing a show in Chicago or Des Moines than doing it in New York."

"That's also what's exciting," says Crocker. "That we're going to a country that's experiencing what it's experiencing now--where it could all be different tomorrow."

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment