Review: `Russian on the Side’

Opened Oct. 21, 2008

Mark Nadler educates and entertains in his 100-minute Russian on the Side, an aspiring Broadway show now at San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow


Nadler serves up Tschaikowsky and others in madcap `Russian’

Ever see a man tap dance, sing and play the piano all at the same time?

Mark Nadler practically does that – OK, when he tap dances, he’s not actually playing the piano – among many other things in his wild and wonderful one-man show Russian on the Side now at San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre.

Take an entire vaudeville show, from the signers to the dancers to the comedians to the specialty acts, and cram them into one body and you begin to imagine the force that is Nadler, a 47-year-old star of the New York cabaret scene.

In March of 2004, Bay Area audiences saw Nadler perform his cabaret show Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians) at the Geary Theater as a bonus in the American Conservatory Theater season back when they did such things.

Russian on the Side is a version of that show, but it’s no longer a cabaret act. It’s a full-on theatrical experience with its eye on Broadway, and the San Francisco run is serving as the out-of-town tryout (after a previous tryout earlier this year at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre).

This time out, Nadler has a set (by David Korins) that sets his grand piano against an ornate tilted wall that captures Keith Parham’s lights beautifully. The intimate Marines Memorial is a much cozier spot than the gargantuan Geary, and Nadler’s outsize energy is something to marvel at in a more contained environment.

The premise of Russian is much as it was four years ago. At the top of the show Nadler sings the tongue-twisting list of composers in “Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians),” a song with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by Kurt Weill from the musical Lady in the Dark.

The song, originally introduced by Danny Kaye (an idol of Nadler’s) lists more than four dozen Russian (and Polish) composers, and then for the next 100 minutes or so, Nadler aims to teach us the song by telling us something about each composer and exposing us to some of their music.

Along the way, he also reveals a few biographical details (not nearly enough to make the show anything more than offhandedly personal). We learn he grew up in Iowa, the son of immigrant Jewish parents and everything he learned, he learned from show tunes. “I don’t play Chopin. I play show tunes.”

Other than being a lively showcase for Nadler’s tremendous talents, Russian on the Side ponders posterity, the stuff of legend and legacy. Why do we remember certain artists – such as Tschaikowsky or Prokofieff or Rimsky-Korsakov – and forget so many of the others (wherefore Korestchenko, Karganov and Sapelnikoff)?

And is a lasting legacy and being played in perpetuity really the ultimate goal? Or is the act of creation the most important thing? Legend, Nadler tells us, is nothing more than a congenital and social mishap.

Amusing and engaging, Nadler’s Russian Composers 101 class is the best – and funniest — music appreciation course you’ll ever take. And while his journey through Russia’s classical music, under the direction of Mark Waldrop, provides structure for the evening, he veers off into the realm of show tunes – or showy tunes — whenever he gets the chance.

His version of Frank Loesser’s “The Ugly Duckling” is as fetching as it was four years ago, and his take on Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Opus 3, No. 2 in C-sharp Minor is a shimmering concert moment.

On numbers such as his tribute to Jelly Roll Morton (“The Creole Way/The Whole World Is Waitin’ to Sing Your Song/In My Day”) and Adam Guettel’s “Icarus,” he pushes awfully hard and strain his voice to the breaking point.
But in a medley of Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Stranger in Paradise” (from Kismet and based on themes of the Russian composer Alexander Borodin), he’s perfectly modulated.

The tap dancing and all-around grandstanding comes with “Taking a Chance on Love,” and while it might seem Nadler is overdoing it, he’s really at his best, flouncing around the stage, singing and dancing with abandon and embodying the sheer joy of performance.

Nadler is hard to resist, and why try? He’s a teacher, an entertainer and all around dazzler. If he pushes too hard, it’s only in service of showing us a good time. And how do you not love a man who calls a nosy Russian neighbor Gladys Kravitznya?


Russian on the Side continues through Nov. 16 at the Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $39-$49. Call 415-771-6900 or visit, or

Here’s Nadler performing the Gershwins’ ‘I Got Rhythm” at what looks to be Sardi’s:

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