Irma La Douce, A Body of Water, Romantic Poetry
by Richard Seff
Mel Miller has been bringing Musicals Tonite to New Yorkers since 1998. What are they? They are a sort of watered down version of Encores!, which means only that they are staged concert readings produced on a tiny budget in a small theatre, with minimum lighting and scenic effects, and orchestrations for one, two or sometimes three instruments. The cast is made up of Equity performers, but the star wattage is dim – that is not to say that the talent onstage is dim, but it’s only rarely that a name recognizable to the public is up there. However, that’s half the fun.
Take Miller’s latest effort, Irma La Douce, a small, sweet musical from 1960, with French and English roots. The French original had a score by Marguerite Monnot with book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort. Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman adapted it into English and it enjoyed a long run in London and again for fifteen months on Broadway with its original stars, Keith Michell and Elizabeth Seal. It has great Gallic charm, lots of lighthearted and romantic lyrics, and its music is in the Becaud-Brel-LeGrand tradition, which is saying a lot. It’s rich, accessible, satisfying.
This sort of soufflé demands actors who can sing, singers who can act, and both must be willing to throw caution to the wind and get downright silly at times. This time out Miller, with the help of his casting director Stephen DeAngelis, has come up a winner, for his three leads, none of whom were known to me, are on the nose perfection, and all the more exciting because I was able to ‘discover’ them. I only hope that casting directors leave their desks and their computers long enough to catch this romp, for it boasts a very talented cast. For the record, ‘Irma’ is played deliciously by Vanessa Lemonides. This charmer combines qualities of the young Eartha Kitt, Chita Rivera, Liliane Montevecchi, combines them into something very much her own, with a voice that’s as soothing as honey in her upper register, as brassy as brass in her lower.
Her leading man (who technically plays two roles) is Wade McCollum. I met him briefly as I was leaving the theatre, and learned he’d ‘just arrived in New York’ had worked in Chicago and other regional theatres, and played everything from I Am My Own Wife to The Merchant of Venice at Portland Stage in Oregon. Welcome to New York, Mr. McCollum; you can sing, you can act, you have star quality.
John Alban Coughlan plays the compère, a character called ‘Bob’, with ease and great charm. He gets the evening off to a great start by relaxing us with “The Valse Milieu” which works on many levels. It tells us where we are, where we’re going, who’s going with us, and throws in a lesson on the slang of that milieu. Mr. Coughlan (and I’m guessing) is not French, but you’d never know it. He could replace Chevalier in several of Maurice’s roles. I’m sorry this runs only until October 26, but I couldn’t ignore letting you know about it, because Musicals Tonight will be offering Tovarich, Early to Bed, Cabaret Girl (not Cabaret; this 1922 musical is by Jerome Kern and PG Wodehouse), and Cole Porter’s You Never Know. Of course you never know if the cast will be up to La Douce, but I suspect they will all be worth your while if you find yourself in our neck of the woods during the coming season.
Irma La Douce plays at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre through Oct 26.
Lest you think I love everything I see, alas, I tell you now of another Lee Blessing play (he wrote the recent Two Rooms, about which I’ve written). This one’s new, it’s called A Body of Water and though it confirms Blessing’s way with words, it does nothing to add weight to the body of his work. A maddening conceit in the Pinter-Albee tradition, it neither probes as deeply as their works do, nor does it offer satisfactory answers to the many questions it raises.
A married couple (Christine Lahti and Michael Cristofer play them as though they believed every word) awakes one morning in a house, facing a body of water, with a problem. They don’t know who they are, and have no idea how they got there. I won’t bother you with the twists and turns that take us down many roads, some of them called Red Herring Drive, but suffice it to say there is a mini-catharsis, a small epiphany, a major but contrived twist minutes before we go home. I will say that the dialogue is brisk enough, and the acting is so adroit I was intrigued. But when the play was over, all I could think of was “these people need help”. I know Blessing is asking us who are we without our memories? He claims, in a program note, that he is ‘exploring the slippery nature of reality and conviction’. Too slippery for me. Despite the game efforts of Ms. Lahti (so nice to see her back onstage, and in full command of her considerable talents) and Mr. Cristofer, whose recent work onstage I seem to have missed. Of course one remembers his own play, The Shadow Box, which deservedly won him a Pulitzer Prize and a run of 315 performances on Broadway in 1977, I think Mr. Blessing wrote this one for himself, for it didn’t seem to reach any of us out front. Of course I’m including my fellow attendees, but judging from the walkout conversations on which I eavesdropped, I don’t think I’ll get much flack for my comment.
A Body of Water continues through Nov 16 at 59E59 Theatre
As my last entry before I fly off to Oregon tomorrow to see what 10 days on a paddle steamer does to me, I have another weak entry for you. I can’t think of one reason for Manhattan Theatre Club to have mounted Romantic Poetry, a very strange musical, unless it was because they’ve had luck in the past with the talented John Patrick Shanley and Henry Krieger, who wrote it.
Again, a plucky and engaging cast of five young people, plus the slightly less green comic actor Mark Linn-Baker, make it palatable enough, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what sustained the authors’ interest in the material during what is always an arduous journey writing a musical. There must be 20 musical numbers, but for some odd reason, though there is a book (by Mr. Shanley, who also dashed off the lyrics), no titles are included in the program. I jotted down a few just to give you an inking: “While You Were In The Lobby”, “Nightclub in a Shoe”, “No One Listens to the Poor”, “We Are Children of God”, “Walking Up The Stairs” (evidently they felt Gospel would be a good way to end the show), and “I’m Bored,” which registered.
A glamourous set designed by David Korins, looked like Manhattan Theatre Club’s homage to Busby Berkeley, with its sweeping white ramp reaching up into the heavens. Of course the program does not indicate time or place, so I guess we were supposed to figure that out. I’d say more then than now, in some resort hotel that is the ante-room to heaven. A young man (played by the attractive Ivan Hernandez) first appears around the grand piano (the rest of the orchestra is on the other side of the stage) to chat with us about poetry and how it’s the opposite of money, or something like that. To dramatize his theme, we meet his new bride, who seems to have married three men, without having bothered to divorce the first, so she’s really not married to anyone. There is another couple thrown into the mix, who work in the hotel (it looks like the hotels so often frequented by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.)
There are some fun numbers, but they seemed interchangeable to me, not only within the context of this odd little piece, but most of them could be placed in any number of other musicals in need of a number or two. It’s confusing because Mr. Shanley is the author of Doubt and many other distinguished plays (though his bio is one sentence long; “John Patrick Shanley’s film of Doubt opens in December.”) Bizarre. Mr. Krieger won a lot of awards for Dream Girls and added many fans for Side Show which is revving up for a revival on Broadway. Maybe they were out walking one day (for they’ve never collaborated before) and somehow “Let’s write a musical!” came up, and before they could find an idea for one, Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove, who head MTC, said “Let’s do it!”. Maybe it’s their way of saying thank you for past riches. It’s all very amiable, but all I got out of it was an opportunity to meet several very charming performers who gamely played through all the holes left by the funny lines that got no laughs, by the cute lyrics that related to little. Harmless, but a recess for these gifted writers.
And now I must close my suitcases, and get out of here, or I’ll miss my plane to Oregon. I wish you all a very pleasant ten days. I return just in time to vote, and I hope all of you will get into that booth and pull the lever. It will be interesting to awake on November 5th (for I’m sure it will take at least until dawn to know who won) to see who our leader actually is, and to start down a new road, for the old one is just worn out.