Thursday, July 21, 2011

SONIA: THE GIRL FROM RUSSIA

International relations, the Bolshevik Revolution, a surprise birthday party, a political riot, and a nearby squad of Marines all collide in SONIA (1930), by Joseph B. Harrison (who wrote Lucky Jade) and our regular contributor to the form, Don Wilson (with cover art by George and Doris Hauman). In addition, the book was edited and additional lyrics written by Geoffrey Morgan, so you know right away that this is gonna be one slightly demented piece. And it is.

We start things off on the grounds of Oxford University -- no, not that Oxford: this one is in Oxford, Mississippi. A group of students are planning a surprise birthday party for Professor Smythe, who's well known across campus for being somewhat absent-minded.

PEG. And how old do you think he'd be by now, I wonder?

MAURICE. Who knows? All profs look alike after they get to be fifty.


Ahem... well, we'll let that slide for the moment. But it turns out that not only is he absent-minded but there's some trouble in his past: no one, not even he, seems to know how he got to Oxford. The college seems to have adopted him, even though no one, not even he, knows his real name.

The party is interrupted by Aunt Martha, whose niece Sonia is a student at the college, and she is not impressed with all these goings-on. She's even less impressed with Pat, the most popular guy on campus who has intentions for Sonia. But he's not the only one: the vaguely Russian Veda, who runs the local beauty parlour. has information about Sonia's long-missing father, that he's being held prisoner in a castle in Siberia. Veda, along with her co-conspirator Boris (who's also about as Russian as a loaf of French bread), of course has no idea where Sonia's father really is, but they've been shaking her down for ransom money for weeks. They werent counting on her to actually go to Russia, but she's determined to do so — and there just happens to be a steamer leaving on June 1, making stops throughout the Pacific, with an intended destination of... Russia. And she's going. Desperate to keep their meal ticket close at hand, Veda and Boris decide they're going. So's Aunt Martha. And Pat. And Professor Smythe. And... well, everyone else.

Now we're off in search of romance
Blindly taking every long chance
Tho' we're sad at parting
We cant alter fate
Nor delay our starting
Now we're at the gate
Oh hear the open road so softly calling
With its gypsy voice enthralling
There's no need of feeling sad or blue
When we say goodbye to you!


So in Act Two we're off to Siberia, where a bunch of Bolshevik revolutionaries are having a little party.

Russia, Russia, land of the proletariat
Rushing, rushing, to the commissariat
Crushing, crushing all the bourgeoisie like that


And everyone stamps their feet a great deal, followed by a group of young ladies who delicately tell us

We are some of Russia's daughters
Left from all the recent slaughters


(You cant make this stuff up, y'know?)

The Bolsheviks stealthily exit as everyone from Oxford enters. Despite the fact that this is the ancient family estate, Aunt Martha is quite horrified by the surroundings, but Sonia is adamant: today is the day she rescues her father. As far as everyone else is concerned, tho?

MAURICE. This's a perfect setting for the college musical show.

PEG. The one we're planning for the spring festival?

MAURICE. Sure. We should hold a rehearsal right here and now.

PEG. But what about costumes?

MAURICE. We'll use the ones we got from that stranded opera company in Vladivostock.

PEG. Splendid! Let's go change right now!

MAURICE. And we'll rehearse the scene where the Bolshevik rush in and tie everybody up and leave them sitting around a bomb with a slow fuse.

PEG. That will be very exciting.


So they all rush off to change as the Professor tells Pat that the castle seems "so familiar somehow". As they explore the place, Pat overhears Boris meeting with a fellow co-conspirator, Count Ginwhiski, plotting for the count to play the part of Sonia's father. They capture the count and take him to the dungeon. Pat takes the count's coat and false whiskers to assume the part of Sonia's father so he can expose the conspiracy. Unfortunately, Sonia sees through it and berates him for not taking her quest seriously. But there's no time for that, because

AUNT. There's an evil looking mob swarming around the castle!

BORIS. It's the Redder-Reddists raiding the castle!


Pat's friend Maurice, who's directing the spring musical, dismisses the idea, saying that it's just everyone from Oxford dressed as Bolshevicks for rehearsal. But it's the real Bolshevicks, who, true to form, tie everyone up and leave them with a bomb with a really long fuse. Professor Smythe comes to the rescue and unties everyone. Maurice, upset that rehearsal didnt go as he wanted, casually throws the bomb over the parapet —

— and it quite promptly explodes. The students rush on and tell everyone that the Bolshevicks have taken the professor captive and set the castle on fire. And there's a storm brewing. And amidst all this chaos, the curtain falls.

Act Three. The storm put out the fire. Pat has gone in search of Professor Smythe. Maurice has captured the count, whom Sonia thinks is her father. And Aunt Martha has had quite enough of this place, thank you very much. And who shows up now?

A bunch of Marines.

The female students are of course in a complete tizzy over this, but Veda, with her expertise in cosmetology, gets them all fixed up.

To lure with beauty
Is your duty
As all women know
With azure eyes and manner shy
And rosy cheeks aglow
With rouge and lipstick
Perfumes mystic
Every charm display
For men succumb,
If you're pretty, though dumb


And after a few more turns, we find out that (in case you hadnt figured this out by now) Professor Smythe is actually Count Markova and Sonia's father. The Bolshevicks are his old retainers and now see the error of their ways. The extortion money is returned to Sonia. And Pat decides it's gonna be used as a nest-egg for the house he and Sonia will build once they're married. And with much merriment and Russian-style dancing, the curtain falls.

This description doesnt even come close to the totally surreal quality that permeates SONIA. With its many mistaken identities and bizarrely complex plot turns, it's actually pretty easy to see what parts of this are Morgan's rewrites... especially considering his fondness for scenes involving revolutionaries (see Rose of the Danube and The Belle of Baghdad). The suprisingly weak score's song cues are about one step away from "Oh, you're from Java? Tell us about it" when they're not outrageously bombastic choral pieces, like the second act finale, in which the frightened students are counter-sung by the gloating Bolshevicks. And, as is usual in a Morgan script, the supporting characters — Veda, Boris, the count — are all far more interesting than the romantic leads, who are utterly bland by comparison.

Still, overall it's a strange, sprawling, almost disorganized little work whose final efforts are only vaguely near the plot's promise. I suppose this was Morgan and Wilson still finding their operetta feet, because SONIA comes so early in their careers — particularly Morgan, who apparently had this serious thing for bomb throwing revolutionaries.

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