ack in Germany of the 1740’s, we’re told, there was not much a young noblewoman could do beyond dreaming of romance and the intrigues of court life—and most especially of managing to marry ‘well’ (I.E., to a man that’s ‘powerful’ and ‘influential’–love notwithstanding.) Even so, for young “Princess Sophie Of Anhalt-Zerbst” (a district of Saxony in what is now modern-day Germany,) her plans were to mix ‘matrimony’, “matriarchy’, and ‘monarchy’ like no one had ever done before or since! Such is the premise of “The Path To Catherine” a new contemporary rock musical about a very tumultuous and groundbreaking time in European (and World) history which saw the rise of Empress “Catherine The Great”, who would become the longest reigning female Regent in Russia’s momentous history and one of its all-time most significant. Now the World Premiere of this musical exploring the life and ascension to the throne of this trailblazing monarch, is making its debut at “The Brickhouse Theater” in North Hollywood California. Produced by Write-Act Repertory Company, the show features a book and lyrics by Patricia Zehentmayr and music by Jan Roper, while the Direction is by Joanna Syiek. What better way to cap-off “Women’s History Month” than with a new musical celebrating one of history’s most influential women?
Far removed from the current regime making sinister headlines of late, “Catherine’s” was a more ‘romantic’ Russia–the one immortalized by the likes of Voltaire, Tolstoy, Hugo and Dostoyevsky, and its precisely at times like these presently, that we should be reminded that this was (and remains) a country with a vast and important history. Moreover, the life of “Catherine The Great” stands out as a shining example of a woman beyond her own time, who broke boundaries and expanded womanhood’s acceptance as contributors to the world stage. Indeed, many are bound to agree that a musical about her is long overdue, as she is easily the historic counterpart to the likes of other powerful ladies, such as England’s “Elizabeth I”, “Victoria” and “Elinor Of Aquitaine”, or Byzantines’ “Empress Theodora”, not to mention that infamous Argentinian First Lady, “Evita Peron”. Instead of a full-on biography, what Mmes. Zehentmayr, Roper and Syiek have created is a musical ‘memoir’ depicting a specific (and very crucial) time in the young life of this woman who was to become one of the most illustrious empresses the world has ever known. Focusing on the weeks between January and May of the year 1744 when she was just 17 years old, it was during this span of a mere four months that a Princesses’ destiny was defined and set in motion.
Zehentmayr’s lyrics are clever and quick-witted, infused with plenty of sharp rhymes and pithy observations, and each are wonderfully matched by Roper’s often soaring melodies. Their real magic however, is how they make bits of dialogue and complete conversations in verse sound perfectly natural in how they’ve set them to music (For that matter, ‘musicalized’ dialogue never sounded so spot-on and authentic!) These sequences are much more eloquent and resonant than just simple ‘recitative’ as has been heard in so many other completely ‘sung-through’ offerings. Each harmony and phrase here has a breadth and purpose to it, conveying the narrative ever onward. Much of the score accentuates the strained relationship our heroine, “Sophie” has with her ardently social climbing mother, “Joanna” (whom we similarly learn, is acting as a spy for German Monarch “Fredrich Wilhelm II”, while she takes “Sophie” to visit the Russian Empress, “Elizabeth” at her opulent “Annenhof Palace” in Moscow.) At the same time, many of the verses give equal insight into their protagonists, their secret hopes, how they’ve become the people they are, and how they feel about it.
Successfully staging any completely ‘sung through’ musical is no small feat; happily, Ms. Syiek’s direction proves that she’s more than up to the task—even winningly so! She keeps things flowing at a steady pace, taking the various scene/location changes in stride while taking full advantage of “The Brickhouse Theater’s” ‘drawing room’ intimacy to reflect, and decisively build upon, the way the plot unfolds. Even the ‘spacing’ within the scenes is subtly perceptive, with those which are more informal, familial (or conspiratorial) kept ‘close-knit’, while the more ‘regal’ ones being staged as rigidly apart and staunchly distanced. “The Brickhouse Theater” practically exemplifies what a cozy, compact auditorium is; (still, if it’s a hatbox, its one with awesome acoustics!) Be advised though, due to this inherent closeness the management of “The Brickhouse Theater” does require that audience members be fully vaccinated and remain masked at all times while inside the theater for this engagement.
Performed sans intermission, “The Path To Catherine” showcases a triad of very talented women and a vivacious score which incorporates contemporary musical elements as might be heard in such previous musical hits as “Hamilton” and “Fun Home”. Set to the accompaniment of a live three-piece combo (including a Cello and an electric Keyboard that mimics a Harpsichord superbly,) these give the goings-on the suitably “Catherinian Age” essence. Another laudable aspect to the show is how it is so self-contained. It doesn’t need huge, splashy ‘Production” numbers or a large ensemble to be as effective as it is. Here is a tale of near-epic scope, told intimately, thanks to the sublime efforts of this amazing triumvirate of singing actresses who make the show come alive. The scenic design is another example of simple effectiveness, primarily consisting of the backstage wall decorated in yellowing pages of old history books and copies of ‘Imperial’ edicts. (Either way, it’s a terrific backdrop for which the action to play out against.) Not to be overlooked either are the stunning period-appropriate costumes, comprising a trio of flowing, up-scale “Baroque era” gowns–one for each of the ladies (augmented of course, by a glistening tiara for “Elizabeth”, who is also clad in a very aristocratic shade of purple as befits her ‘elevated’ station!)
“My name is Catherine—I am an Empress (and some people say a ‘temptress’)” the teenaged incarnation of this soon-to-be Sovereign introduces herself with, as part of the rousing rap-inspired prelude titled “Things Don’t Always Go As Planned”, after informing us that she wasn’t Russian and she wasn’t ‘meant’ to rule, while also giving us a quick historical rundown as to who all three historic figures whom through the story is told are. “Though she was her mother’s daughter, what her mother taught her wasn’t near enough,” the three croon; “so she learned to take the power–climb the highest tower–and become the ruler of the land!” And the quickest way to achieve that end was by marrying the future leader, “Peter III”. “You may remain a Princess of some feudal ‘ant-hill’ or become a Grand Duchess,” Elizabeth counsels her. “Chances come with choices and vice-versa” we’re reminded, and “Sophie’s” involved converting from the German “Lutheranism” of her father to be baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church (and in doing so, her name was officially changed to “Catherine”.) This allowed her betrothal to the incipient “Czar Peter” to proceed, despite her choice meaning she would say goodbye to her mother…whom she never saw again! While factually rooted in history, the conclusion is more bittersweet (—albeit definitely triumphant,) than traditionally ‘happy’, as history seldom leaves things wrapped up in a tidy bow (“Catherine” and “Peter” were light-years away from enjoying marital bliss—in fact, she even participated in a coup to effectively oust him from the throne!) A quick ‘epilogue’ flashing forward to 1796, has the elder “Catherine” reflecting back on her life and the manifold achievements she has attained for her people and for women everywhere. For instance: “Catherine” founded the very first All-Girl Academy in Russia, as well as encouraging more female writers and artists. It’s no accident that the plethora of female writers from Mary Shelly and Jane Austin, to Louisa Mae Alcott and the Bronte Sisters (who followed them,) all began appearing just after the twilight of her reign.
Elise Walters is “Princess Sophie” (later “Catherine The Great”) and a better or more charismatic performer would be hard to find. Gifted with an amazing voice and enviable way with a lyric, she excels in this key role. In the opening stanzas of her introductory chanson titled “More Than Me”, we’re given a delectable taste of just how powerful and expressive this young woman’s vocal talents are. “To be a flower is OK,” she concedes, “but I want to be the whole bouquet!” Her “Sophie” is as wide-eyed and idealistic as any young lass—particularly in regard to her hopes for marriage (counter to many of those around her, she guilelessly wants to marry the man—not his title!) As her character-arc comes fuller into her own, she strikes all the right chords and strokes all the right emotions with “Growing Closer”—essentially “Sophie’s” personal “declaration of independence”, in which she confronts her insufferably grasping mother, citing: “Since I was tiny I have known my birth was your ‘setback…Me, a girl you only tolerated, though I tried (Oh HOW I tried) how long I waited; though I hoped your kindness would sustain me, I have found what you call ‘love’ only drained me!” Only to add, “Are you at cross purposes in your mind? Finding our fortunes so intertwined?! Trying to make up for what you lack—climbing higher (but only on MY back!)”
Also remarkable is Jessica Reiner-Harris as her mother, “Princess Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp”. “Noble Women never marry for love” she tells “Sophie” at one point; “Our family hasn’t married for love in 400 years!” She too, possesses a top-flight talent for interpreting a song–whether it be authoritative, coquettish or pensive; hers is also the character who kind of ‘drives’ the action, and perhaps the most fascinating aspect of her performance here is how multi-faceted it is. What’s more, to give so many shades to her portrayal entirely through song makes it all the more dynamic an accomplishment. Early on she shares a pointed duet with “Sophie” (one of several) called “Love And Dominion”, wherein we’re appraised as to the expectations for those ‘to the manor born’: “There is Love and there is ‘Duty’,” she admonishes the girl, “and you get the one you get–never the two have met!” before further chastising her: “Princesses don’t get to whine!” Not to be overlooked either is how she allows her verse to crescendo marvelously at the close of “The Mother Of…” making this a bona-fide show highlight! It would be too easy to simply write her off as your standard conniving mother, but there are moments when Ms. Reiner-Harris displays a striking and sincere pathos behind “Joanne’s” machinations. Late in the proceedings, we are offered a glimpse into HOW and WHY “Joanna” has become what she’s become: The Royal version of a fanatical ‘stage parent’ like “Gypsy’s” “Mama Rose” (this is also where that Cello really proves its worth to the accompaniment!”) “When I was a child, we were the ‘poor relations’ of the ‘House Of Brunswick’,” she laments describing how she was sent to be raised by her aunt—‘The Duchess”: “Who owns everything she touches; It was there I learned to want!” It’s actually a fairly poignant interlude and Ms. Reiner-Harris performs it brilliantly. Prior to this, Walters and Harris do a remarkable ovation-worthy job sharing the fast-paced lyrics of ‘News In A Letter”, as mother sternly warns her daughter how to behave when meeting the “Empress” (the Niece of no less than the legendary “Peter The Great” himself.) “Don’t put on airs before the deal is done” she cautions her.
Rounding out their tuneful triad is Robyn Roth, who provides a genuinely dignified and stately presence as ‘the formidable’ “Empress Elizabeth Of Russia” (–and one with an amazing singing voice at that!) She masterfully invests her preliminary ‘official’ solo/soliloquy “Something Tells Me” with a fine ‘bluesy’ vibe, then shines all over again a bit later delivering “We Could be Family”—a bedside benediction sung to the sleeping Princess Sophie who is recovering from a sudden illness. Then again, Roth imbues all of her songs with a lush, soulful tonality and style, while acting-wise, she likewise impresses when giving us glimpses of the Empress’s more vulnerable side, starting with her part in the jivey shared soliloquy “If I Could Close Both Eyes”, which elucidates some very deep sentiments set to a lively beat: “I only wanted a family—never wanted to rule,” she confides; “look what the world’s given me: I am fortunes’ fool–special to no-one; exalted by everyone. I’m someone to get things from! That’s me…truly alone.” What this “Empress” longs for is the human connection denied her—she has all the power already, but continues to pine for the deceased love of her life, and the children they might have had. Roth makes this inner-desolation clear with her parts in some of the show’s later descants like “Love Is A Lot To Ask For” and “Risked Everything”: “It was a love that outlived death,” she describes; “We would have had many blessed years together…not all arranged marriages turn into love, but the life you lived would be so rare,” she tells “Sophie”, “you might find that you don’t care; the view is different–and with a family and children of your own, you’ll never be alone…” This intermezzo swells into a soaring contemporary duet with Ms. Walters once the focus shifts from what the “Empress” has lost and onto what her young visitor stands to gain. Through it all (—and despite “Joanna’s” machinations,) “Elizabeth” steadfastly remains hopeful that “Sophie” may emphatically be the one to help stabilize the Russian throne.
Like a big, buoyant ‘World History’ lesson set to music, this ranks as “Must See” viewing for students and History enthusiasts of all ages!! (Think of it as one of those rare theatrical treasures you may have had to hunt for, but once found, you know you’re far richer for discovering this musical “Crown Jewel”!) Having opened on Sunday, March 27th, “The Path To Catherine” is slated to play through May 1st, 2022 at “The Brickhouse Theater’, located at 10950 Peach Grove Street., in North Hollywood, CA (off Vineland, just north of Camarillo) Showtimes are Saturday evenings at 7:00 PM and Sunday afternoons at 3:00 PM ; Tickets may be obtained on-line from “Brown Paper Tickets” at: https://thepathtocatherine.bpt.me , or directly, at the door. For more information, or to hear a few samples from the score log onto: https://thepathtocatherine.com/
Production Stills By Joanna Syiek, Courtesy of Sandra Kuker http://www.sandrakukerpr.com/ And “Write-Act Repertory”; Special Thanks To Sandra Kuker, Joanna Syiek, John Lant, Tamra Pica, Jonathan Harrison, Patricia Zehentmayr, Jan Roper And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Brickhouse Theater’s” 2022 World Premiere Of “The Path To Catherine” For Making This Story Possible.