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Any company which has been so widely advertised and extravagantly praised as the Chauve-Souris is likely to prove disappointing, but it is to the credit of these Russian players that every act is as fresh now as it was on their arrival in New York; even the "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers", which has been played to death by dance orchestras everywhere, seems new and different when accompanying the clockwork manoeuvers of the pipe-clayed actors. Balieff, of course, is inimitable; no one could rob his "apparition on the stage", as he says, of one whit of its originality or its unique humor. One is reconciled to the end of each scene only by the knowledge that this master comedian will reappear for one of his nonpareil curtain-talks, and when he actually joins the unspeakable "Russian Vocal Quartet" for a few flourishes, he raises the roof perceptibly. The temptation is to write reams about Balieff; his explanation that since the audience did not understand Italian, "La Grande Opera Italiana" would have to be sung in Russian,-his laudable attempt to teach the Russian language in one lesson, for as he says, it is so easy that every child of six speaks it in Russia,-and his indescribably ludicrous facial expressions will become classic.
But the truth is, he does not dwarf the rest of the performance at all. Every act is a masterpiece of its kind. Everyone has heard of the Wooden Soldiers, and of Katinka and her inexorable polka, but in vigor of execution, in recognition of artistic requirements and in sheer merit, these two most popular scenes scarcely outdo the others. The music throughout is so far above the level of the American vaudeville that one hesitates to apply that classification to the Russian counterpart. The voices are really musical,-except, of course, when they are intentionally harsh for obvious effects,-and the dancing, of which there is regrettably little, is interesting to say the least.
An attempt, however, to describe the sixteen parts of the program must be too brief to do them justice, but mention of the most striking is absolutely necessary to the peace of mind of the critic. "La Grande Opera Italiana", previously noted in connection with M. Balieff, "Chastoushki", and "The Chorus of the Brothers Zaitzeff", are the most hilarious of the musical numbers, while "A Night at Yard's", and "Ei Ukhnem" are unforgettably dramatic in their relation of Siavic feeling and character. An Anglo Saxon feels as embarrassed listening to the almost barbaric gypsy songs as if he were impersonating Ring Lardner's "wolf crawling into a bathroom window", but the Russians revel in them with genuine ecstasy and abandon. In "The Sudden Death of a Horse", one's ignorance of the language, which is an astonishingly slight handicap throughout, prevents any understanding of the dialogue, but the action to so vivid and the pantomime so unmistakable that one's appreciation becomes shockingly ribald. Besides, there is the beautiful duet called "Silence", the exquisite scenic effect of the "See-Saw" and perfect artistry of the "Minuet", and perhaps there are now one or two of the sixteen which have not been touched. But after all; too much cannot be said of the merit of these Russians; they are distinctive, they are refreshing, and in America, they are unique.
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