Ninotchka – Melchior Lengyel’s 1930s fable of the power of love to overcome barriers of nationality and ideology – still has the power to charm audiences.
That was amply proven at the opening of the White Rock Players Club’s latest production at the Coast Capital Playhouse last week.
In a play that hinges on attraction, romance and ultimately love between its two principal characters, everything depends on the on-stage chemistry between the actors selected – a frequent problem for community theatre shows.
Fortunately, director Dale Kelly has chosen wisely with his leads.
Tomas Gamba (as Parisian lawyer Leon Dagoult) and Donnub Jafarzadeh as the title character (Soviet envoy Nina Yukushova) both deliver strong, pitch-perfect performances, creating a believable couple out what would seem an unlikely pairing of characters.
And that solid core, well exploited by Kelly, goes a long way to overcoming the principal drawback of this show, its traditional three-act, two-intermission structure. While exploring the issues at such length may have provided value-for-money for post-Depression-era audiences, it can prove a little wearing for modern theatregoers accustomed to two acts only (particularly in staid, senescent White Rock, where our therapeutic mattresses beckon after 9:30 p.m.).
Based on a Lengyel story pitch that became a classic movie for Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas and a host of scene-stealing character players – Ninotchka tells the story of no-nonsense Nina, sent to Paris in 1938 to break a stalemate over repatriating Rembrandt paintings that had been spirited out of Russia by members of the Romanov royal family.
It’s easy to see why negotiations with exiled Princess Stephanie (Rebecca Sutherland) have broken down – the current envoys are three charming bumblers, Babinski, Brankov and Ivanov (amusingly played by Bryce Mills, Kelly Thompson and Adam Piercy), who have been encouraged to enjoy all the luxuries of Paris by Leon, Stephanie’s legal representative and sometime lover.
Gamba, always an assured and capable player, is smoothness and sophistication personified as the ready-to-be-reformed rake Leon (with French cadences largely secure against an onslaught of well-suggested Russian tones), while Jafarzadeh delivers a thoroughly nuanced portrayal of Nina, faultlessly transitioning, whenever needed, from blunt didacticism into a believable spectrum of human emotion.
Mills nails leading envoy Babinski’s heavy pessimism; Thompson is delightful as food-obsessed Brankov; and Piercy appealingly innocent and guileless as Ivanov. But as good as they are individually, the three didn’t quite function as a team in the performance I saw.
Tall, cadaverous Charles Buettner, complete with waxed moustache, is memorable as icy, opportunistic Commisar Krasnov; and while Sutherland seemed a little at sea with the haughty, jealousy-wracked Stephanie on opening night, she upped the game with a bravura speech in which she touchingly conveys the character’s genuine sense of loss of her homeland.
Jennifer Lane is all extravagant gesture with the two-dimensional supporting role of Parisian couturier Coppelia, while Pat McDermott, limited by cameo appearances as a hotel waiter, still manages to squeeze some comedic moments out of them.
Costumer Laura McKenzie has given the Parisiennes some elegant clothes to wear, and provided Soviet uniforms and men’s suits that are culturally and era-evocative, if not strictly historical. Colleen Bignell’s sound design agreeably harks back to the period, while Sara Nadeau’s decor and Warren Johnston’s open-walled design seems, as well as conveying a sense of the time, to invite the city of Paris in as another character.
The show continues until June 23, with performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets ($22, $19 students and seniors) are available by calling 604-536-7535, or online at whiterockplayersclub.ca