Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Encores! Presents Irma La Douce

Readers of The Jade Sphinx are perhaps weary of hearing about the swelligant series of musical revivals at City Center here in Gotham.  Encores! is simply one of the chief pleasures of living in New York, where the audience is often as interesting, varied and engaging as the show.  Here, musical theater buffs congregate for restagings of little-seen shows with top-notch casts and the finest orchestra performing on Broadway.  The creative minds behind the series are Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman, who have done a superb job of mounting these shows since 1994.

This year’s crop of Encores! productions included the incandescent Little Me and the fetching and moving Most Happy Fella.  They close out the year with a first – a revival of a European musical that is perhaps best known through its US film version – which was, oddly enough, made without music.

Irma La Douce was first performed in Paris in 1956.  It has a score by Marguerite Monnot (1903-1961), with book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort (1901-1971).  It ran for four years.  It moved to London’s West End in 1958 – where this version, directed by Peter Brook (born 1925), ran for three years.  It was mounted on Broadway by David Merrick (1911-2000) in 1960.  The English adaptation and translation was by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman.  It ran for one year.  (An empiricist might conclude that musicals about prostitutes play better in French.)

Most readers will be familiar with the non-musical film version of 1963, starring Jack Lemmon (1925-2001) and Shirley MacLaine.  The film version shares with most musicals a frenetic energy and a colorful, vibrant bounce, and comes recommended.  (However, Jack Lemmon is often an exhausting screen presence, and is at his most febrile here.  You have been warned.)

The story concerns Irma La Douce, a successful prostitute who lives in Paris. A poor law student, Nestor le Fripé, falls in love with her and is jealous of her clients. In order to keep her for himself, he assumes the disguise of a rich older man, "Oscar," and takes many odd jobs to pay for her. Finally no longer able to sustain his exhausting life, he disposes of his Oscar identity, only to be convicted of murder, and transported to Devil's Island.  He escapes and returns to Paris, where he proves that he is innocent before reuniting with his beloved.

As always, Encores! are wonderfully staged and mounted.  This is the first-ever full set in the series, by John Lee Beatty, and it’s a stunner.  Sadly, the set is really quite the best thing about the show.  The entire production never manages to build momentum, and despite their best efforts, the cast lacks the verve and panache necessary to pull off the show. 

As Irma, Jennifer Bowles sings wonderfully well, but her dancing (more stomping than stepping, really) is lamentable.  Nor does she really have the personality, nor the energy, necessary to stop the show through any of her solo numbers.  Rob McClure, in the dual role of Nestor and Oscar, lacks the comic timing and farcical sense that someone like Christian Borle or Danny Kaye would bring to the role, and leaves little impression.  Indeed, the entire cast is too subdued to electrify the farcical proceedings, and the resulting show just lies there lifelessly.  The one exception is Malcolm Gets, as the bartender, who sings well and plays adroitly.

This lack of energy is the result, in part, of the pedestrian staging by director John Doyle.  It would seem that his idea of bedroom farce is a great deal of running and mugging, without positioning his players in any strategic way around the stage.

The main problem, of course, is the book, by More, Heneker and Norman.  There is a persistent melancholy note, and, more telling, it is never quite as smart as it thinks it is.  It also relies upon the old chestnut of someone not recognizing their disguised lover, not even during sex.  It doesn’t work in Shakespeare, and it hasn’t worked since then.  Worse still, the book never really exploits the comic potential of the material, and the manic qualities inherent in the book devolve into mere whimsy.

An unfortunate end to what was a stellar season at Encores!, but even the best are entitled to an occasional misstep.

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