Three gay men find themselves trapped in an empty theater that may be heaven, hell, or somewhere in-between (with only Chekhov’s The Three Sisters as their companion) in Nick Salamone and Maury R. McIntyre’s engaging, touching chamber musical Moscow, now playing at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre. 

Middle-aged Jon (John Whitley), virginal Matt (Angelo D’Agostino), and rebellious Luke (Kevin Koppman-Gue) are already on stage playing softball with a pincushion ball and a broomstick bat when the audience enters, pausing only for Dan Kirsch’s curtain speech before donning pieces of theater curtain—Jon confectioning a headscarf, Matt a shawl, and Luke a skirt—for the show’s opening number.  It seems that the softball match was merely a warm-up for their latest pastime, reenacting Chekhov’s The Three Sisters with Jon as Olga, Matt as Masha, and Luke as Irina.

It soon becomes obvious that Luke has no interest at all in portraying one of Chekhov’s siblings.  Luke:  “I know Jon, they wanna go to Moscow till they puke, but nothing ever happens, nothing important.”  Jon:  “Nothing important, Luke? Just their lives!” Not about to take no for an answer, Jon sings Luke some “Cliff Notes” about The Three Sisters, but Luke remains resistant.  The only Russian he’s ever heard about is Rocky And Bullwinkle’s Natasha, so he wonders if there’s a Boris too. “No, there’s no Boris!” snaps back Jon, who will hear nothing about Luke’s quitting. Whether he likes it or not, he’s “in there” just as Jon and Matt are, and there’s no exit. (Sartre reference intentional.)

As Moscow progresses, Salamone’s book and lyrics tell us more about each character.

We learn that Jon’s deceased lover was a theater director who died during the second read-through of The Three Sisters, and it becomes obvious rather quickly that shy Matt has a thing for the sophisticated older man. Though Jon is to play Olga, Matt thinks the character he truly resembles is Masha’s married lover Vershinin, and the pair duet “The Love Scene” with Matt as Masha and Jon as Vershinin. Though Jon is skeptical (“For God’s sake, I sound like Margaret Thatcher on ecstasy”), Matt clearly relishes being able to tell Jon things as Masha that he’d never have the courage to say as himself.

If Jon takes after Vershinin, then, says Matt, Masha is like his own mother, an African American woman who loved Matt’s Caucasian father despite knowing that he would never marry her. In “Mosco’,” Matt channels Diana Ross as he recalls the Mom from Detroit who moved away from the Motor City to raise her son in Moscow, Idaho.

Meanwhile, Luke rages at Jon for always needing to be in control and wonders once again why God is doing this to them, and why they have to waste their time on The Three Sisters, to which Jon explains that “by some accident, a book was left here alone with us in this theater. It happened to be a play, a Russian play.  I happened to know Russian. The Three Sisters I something we do to give order to our days.”

A love triangle soon develops, as Luke begins to reveal his feelings for Matt (“I like the way you move”).  Still, as much as Matt wants to stay where he is (“I feel alive here”), Luke, like his character Irina, is desperate to escape, always dreaming of returning home to (song cue) “Alabama,” Olympic torch in hand, riding on a Harley with Greg Louganis and Martina Navratilova. It turns out that Luke was kicked out of his home at 14 when his father found him “goin’ down on a colored boy,” and he hasn’t been back since.

Throughout Moscow, Salamone’s clever, witty lyrics and McIntyre’s beautiful, lilting melodies help us know Jon, Matt, and Luke better.  In “Touch,” Luke expresses to Matt a simple but profound longing for human contact.   (“Maybe not what you’d want at all out there, but in here, I’m a warm body and I can be tender.  Maybe not what you want.  But you could pretend.”). In the gorgeous “Empty Room,” Luke expresses how deeply in love he has fallen with Jon.  In the poignant “Behind me,” Jon recalls memories of vacations in Fire Island with his lover.

Exactly where Jon, Matt, and Luke find themselves is left up to each audience member to decide.  So, I suppose, is the writers’ message, though certainly one that this reviewer took away from the piece is the transformative power of theater, Chekhov’s The Three Sisters providing solace to three lost souls. The message you derive may be entirely different.

None of this thematic ambiguity gets in the way of audience enjoyment, however. Moscow has charm, wit, and a trio of appealing characters we come to care about, particularly as portrayed by the talented Diversionary cast under the confident direction of Ira Spector.

Whitley, excellent as both actor and singer, shows us Jon’s inner conflicts, his longing for things lost, and his attempts to bring back some past happiness by staging the play that his lover could not finish.  D’Agostino plays against his Mediterranean heartthrob good looks to create a sweet, lonely, sensitive Matt, and his rich, resonant voice is, in a word, sublime. Koppman-Gue’s cocky, needy Luke, night-and-day different from his nerdy virgin in the recent Speech & Debate, reveals an actor of versatility, and he too scores vocally, particularly in “Alabama.” 

Providing first-rate backup to the cast’s vocals is musical director Patrick Marion on piano, joined behind the black curtain by Ana Brown on violin and Rik Ogden on flute, an entirely appropriate choice of instruments for a chamber musical.

A simple but effective set design by Megan Schmidt drapes theater curtains around the stage’s black walls.  Schmidt also gets thumbs up for her costume and property designs.  Karin Filijan’s lighting design enhances mood changes from song to song.  Bret Young is production manager and Josh Hyatt is stage manager, assisted by Sarah Palmer.

Moscow brings Diversionary’s 2009-10 season to a memorable end.  A delicate delight, it is likely to please a broad spectrum of musical theater devotees, and even though, like The Three Sisters, Jon, Matt, and Luke may never make it to Moscow, theirs is certainly a journey worth experiencing.

PS: You don’t have to have seen or read The Three Sisters to enjoy Moscow.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
May 8, 2010
                                                                                   Photos: Ken Jacques

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