June 3, 2023

A few minutes into “The Beautiful Lady,” you might think the show owes something to “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”: After all, here’s another bunch of exalted Russians in a cabaret, singing of life, loss , hope and love.

But “The Beautiful Lady,” a 1984 musical by Elizabeth Swados, is actually the artistic precursor to Dave Malloy’s “Great Comet,” even though it’s only now premiering in New York at La MaMa, under the evocative direction of Anne Bogart. .

Swados is best remembered for her 1978 show “Runaways” (briefly revived by Encores! Off-Center in 2016, a few months after her death); “The Beautiful Lady” adds to the mounting evidence that she was one of the most idiosyncratic and creative composer-lyricists of her generation. (A few years ago Malloy joined the likes of Michael R. Jackson, Taylor Mac and Shaina Taub on the tribute album “The Liz Swados Project”.)

More of a song cycle than a traditionally structured, plot-driven musical, “The Beautiful Lady” is set at the Stray Dog Café, a real-life cabaret in St. Petersburg where the proprietor, Boris Pronin (Starr Busby), entertains such literary greats as Anna Akhmatova (Kate Fuglei), Osip Mandelstam (Henry Stram), Marina Tsvetaeva (Ashley Pérez Flanagan) and Alexander Blok (George Abud, from “The Band’s Visit”) in the years leading up to World War I. high on ideas and ideals – and, for some of them, on each other – and dreaming of a political, sexual and artistic revolution.

Swados and Paul Schmidt, who translated many of those writers’ poems (large portions of which are incorporated into the show), wrote the book, which was revised by Jocelyn Clarke and serves primarily as a thread between the songs. And oh, what marvels they are: lively and funny, desperate and elegiac, with some so beautiful they’ll break your heart.

Bogart takes full advantage of La MaMa’s deep stage, creating striking tableaux with little more than a few chairs and tables (Andromache Chalfant did the scenic design) and bold lighting (designed by Brian H. Scott) that focuses on blues and reds . The effect is powerfully stark and never overwhelms those at the heart of the story.

When they change into gray overalls halfway through, we are reminded how many times dreams of revolution have ended in repressive regimes. In the dreamlike world of the musical, the Stray Dog stays open long enough for its residents to face that reality and resort to gallows humor, telling each other jokes that depict the cruel absurdity of life under Stalinist rule, with its Orwellian Newspeak and thought crimes. (Some of those jokes have been reused for Putin; they still work.)

“My lady made of silk and sighs,” sings Sergei Yesenin (Andrew Polec, far from “Bat Out of Hell”) in an ode to American dancer Isadora Duncan, pining and helpless as his world comes crashing down. “My lady full of laughter and farewell.” He might as well – poetically, of course – describe the spirit of this show.

The beautiful lady
Through May 28 at La MaMa, Manhattan; lamama.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.