At a scene of tragedy in Moscow, an act of hope

Cut off mid-song by a terrorist attack three months ago, a patriotic Russian musical returns to the stage.

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To a packed theater, the players roared through their familiar song and dance numbers. Nobody skipped a beat as they came to the moment when, just three months ago, a group of masked Chechens had burst onto the stage firing assault rifles and unleashing a 60-hour ordeal of terror.

The cast of the Russian musical "Nord-Ost" chose to launch their return to the stage Saturday with minimal eulogizing or politicized rhetoric. Their sole remembrance was a moment's silence for the 170 people who died when security forces stormed the hall on Oct. 26. "We went through a lot of trepidation, and had to prepare ourselves psychologically for coming back," says director Georgy Vasilyev. "We decided to look forward, not backward, so as to banish the feelings of fear from this place."

"Nord-Ost," billed as the first Broadway-style musical based on a Russian novel, is an exuberant, patriotic show full of expensive special effects, including a real plane that lands onstage. Before the terrorist attack cut short its first year-long Moscow run, nearly 300,000 people had seen it. Yet the tale it tells is a dark historical drama of war, murder, famine, intrigue, and betrayal that seems more the stuff of Shakespearian tragedy than frothy musical. "We are aware of the irony that 'Nord-Ost,' being about very painful episodes in Russian history, itself became one," says Mr. Vasilyev.

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He was among the 800 audience and cast members held at gunpoint by the Chechen "suicide warriors." The toxic knockout gas used by Russian security forces to subdue the attackers also killed 129 hostages - 17 of them cast members, including two child actors. Despite the horror they endured, all surviving members of the company signed up for "Nord- Ost's" revival. The audience Saturday also included former hostages. "I'm just happy to be here as a free person, not a hostage," said Alyona Strelnikova. "Bringing back 'Nord-Ost' was the right thing to do."

But most appeared reluctant to talk about their ordeal. Andrei Bogdanov, the brash, athletic actor who plays the show's male lead, would say only: "There is a bullet hole in one of the sets which repair workers failed to remove. I wince whenever I see it."

One reason for their reticence may be a fear of being dragged into political controversy. Though the "Nord-Ost" terrorist assault has been called "Russia's Sept. 11," many Russians appear conflicted over the causes of the terrorism that suddenly struck their capital city. And they are acutely aware that, though inadvertently, it was the security forces - and not the Chechen terrorists - who killed scores of hostages. "I can't find it within myself to hate the Chechens, though I'm horrified by what they did to us," says Mikhail Sokolov, whose cousin died in the siege. "I know there is another side to the story. I know that our own leaders have something to answer for."

One bitter legacy of the terrorist attack is the ongoing lawsuit by 60 former hostages and families of the deceased, who are demanding that Mayor Yury Luzhkov's administration acknowledge mistakes made by authorities, and pay more than the official compensation of around $3,100 for each victim.

The Kremlin paid much of the $2.5 million bill to refurbish the Na Dubrovke Theater, rebuffing the producers' wish for a different venue. "We had to return to this hall or face closure," says Vasilyev.

A few officials got into the act Saturday, making political declarations before the show. "This is a celebration of the will of Russia, the will of our people who, with this revival, have declared that terrorism will not win," Mr. Luzhkov said.

But many who lived through the terror are more circumspect. "I don't have the right to say the show shouldn't be revived," says Sergei Karpov, whose son, a singer in the cast, died from effects of the toxic gas. "But I feel uneasy with this effort to paper everything over as quickly as possible. They're telling us, 'We've buried the dead, so let's get on with the show.' "

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