Russians Are Coming! Russians Are Coming — and an Iowan, Too!


Tchaikowsky was no sleeping beauty, but he gets a trilling wake-up call in Mark Nadler's nattering raucous riot of pianistic Ruskie-fisticuffs of a show, "Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians)," now playing at Morgans Cabaret at the Prince Music Theater.

Bang the shoe slowly: If you hear the pitter-patter of theatrical footprints, it has everything to do with the title number of patter that slid off Danny Kaye's silver tongue like a platter on a conveyor belt way back, when musicals were more than chandeliers and Kaye was one of its leading lights 66 years ago in "Lady in the Dark."

Lad in the light this Mark Nadler, who takes the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin gimmickry, and gives it a verbal sleigh ride with tongue-twists and turns that land lyrics happily on their head.

After all, what to expect from a mischievous man who dreams of a "White Christmas" in Yiddish? While his experiences working with Dame Edna dim in the Diaspora of "other credits," Nadler stands alone on stage now with a million-man march of memories, stories and songs that had one wag simply wag his head in disbelief, observing, "If Victor Borge had been able to sing and tap dance, he would have been Mark Nadler."

But Nadler laughs at the presumption, content that in a game of musical chairs, it would be Nadler — not Borge — sliding off the stool first, ceding seniority to the late legendary musician who laughed all the way to the bank note.

Nadler has come a long way from his Iowa daze — measured much more than in the 1,100 miles between the Prince and the pauper of choices he had to succeed there.

"I was desperate to get out," says Nadler of a region that held about 100 families but didn't have a hold on him.

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming — and an Iowan, too! So, what's a Jew to do in a state where Kornburg is not the name of the local neighbor but an apt title for the burg's best-selling vegetable?

"Iowa is also our nation's pork state," says Nadler, slabbing it on thick.

He felt stalked at home. "Corn and ham — they most inspired my work."

His humor is deli-delicious: "I started working when I was 10 — to have enough money to go away to school."

Three to Get Ready
But it wasn't just the anti-Semitism that raised the ante. As he explains: "I was an oddball. It had to do with my singing show tunes, being Jewish and not being an athlete."

Des Moines de merrier? Not quite. The only jock support he elicited was from carrying a tune.

And even they were lightweight.

Adding to his Iowa oddball stature was impressing moms while embarrassing their children: "I started performing when I was 4 or 5, and the parents would say to their kids, 'Why can't you do this?' " The kids had an answer. "They'd beat me up severely."

But those magic fingers stayed fine — and straight. And Nadler had his own way to win; indeed, the Empire struck back. "I would climb to the top of my yellow swing set and try to see the Empire State Building," he says.

Talk about telescoping your talents: Eventually, he did, when Nadler swung his career plans and left for New York at 17, where the pianist found more than dreams: "I found paradise."

That was some magical swing set. "My brother used to climb it, too; he had the same feelings I did."

But his paradise was one of a different empire; he saw Mount Sinai, not the Catskills. "He went to live in Israel." His second brother became a lawyer, "and they both married Israeli women."

Music to his ears? "You've never heard Israeli names said with Iowan accents."

Mark's accent was on making his mark in New York, never having to table his dreams. "I never had to be a waiter; I always got to make a living in music."

But he did, on occasion, also get to stuff a check in his pocket without benefit of having his cheeks pinched.

"Very briefly," he says of his "few Bar Mitzvah engagements, which I found offensive. They're usually about the parents, not the kids."

Ever the kidder, he staged his own — for his dog. "I did a parody for my dog at 13 — a Bark Mitzvah. The New York Times covered it."

After all, what's his canine kid — chopped liver? "I did a chopped liver in the shape of a dog bone."

No, there's nothing in the Prince show about a Fiddler on the woof, but there is much to laugh about. As for those laughing, Nadler's got a bead on those with the best beat. Jews and gays make for a grand night. Keep it gay, keep it gay, keep it … Jews?

"If I can get gay Jews, then I have everything!"

It's all in his happy hands, moving ever so quickly across the piano on stage, a lyrical love story. What can you say about a 25-year career that thrives? That it's beautiful and brilliant? That he loves Mozart and Bach, the Beatles and … Bugs Bunny? "He's my real inspiration," notes Nadler of the cartoon character when portrayed onscreen as an animated pianist in tails. "Did you ever watch him? He's the greatest!"

Even more deft than the Road Runner?

"No, you can't catch the Road Runner. But," says the piano man, pedaling smartly away, "you can catch my show at the Prince the next two weeks."


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