Transformed into a work of musical theatre, Nikolai Gogol’s story of a lowly clerk who stakes his future on the purchase of a new coat is brought to vivid life.
Nikolai Akakievich (Charles Wu) is a working stiff eking out a bleak existence copying and shredding documents in a government office in St Petersburg.
Made aware of the shabbiness of his attire by his colleagues, and with a hard winter predicted, Nikolai is talked into buying a new coat. Not any old off-the-peg job, mind you, but an elegant, tailor-made creation that will enhance his social standing and open up new career horizons.
The price? One hundred roubles, a huge outlay for a clerk. Nikolai will have to starve to pay it, and even make do without shoes.
For a while, however, it seems like his outlandish purchase is worth it. After taking delivery of the coat, Nikolai is the toast of the town. His workmates are suddenly fawning over him. His supervisor is impressed. He’s invited to a smart party across town.
But it’s not long before disaster strikes. On his way home from the party, he’s mugged and stripped of his beloved coat.
His newfound status, he discovers, is very short-lived.
In its day, The Overcoat was a strident comment on the plight of the working poor in Russia and the country’s stifling bureaucracy. In this somewhat simplified version of the story, created by siblings Constantine, Michael and Rosemarie Costi from a translation by Alena Lodkina, Nikolai’s situation resonates as a satire on modern day consumer society. For “overcoat”, simply substitute beachside apartment, designer bag or new car.
Working within the limits of the 25A season’s mandatory shoestring budget, this is an impressive venture. Emma Vine creates a set from yellowing cardboard sheets pierced with portals. Lighting designer Alexander Berlage creates striking atmospheres, and director Constantine Costi uses the space available to him inventively.
His cast is excellent, with Laura Bunting and Kate Cheel sharp in several roles (Cheel is particularly good as Nikolai’s landlady). Aaron Tsindos brings a touch of the Brothers Grimm to his outsized portrayal of Petrovich the tailor. Wu’s comparatively gentle performance is very effective and at times (when he dances with his beloved coat, for example) quite touching.
The musical component of the show is similarly strong, with Rosemarie Costi’s jazz-infused score played by an agile trio – Tate Sheridan on piano, Sarah Evans on double bass and Josh Willard on alto sax – playing side of stage. As well as playing melodic lines, Willard’s sax injects tormented shrieks and scribblings to amplify our sense of Nikolai’s mounting distress.
Belvoir’s 25A has produced some excellent shows in its inaugural year. The Overcoat is up there with the best of them. For those weary of the more obvious musical romances, it is refreshing indeed.