I may be eating my words about super-sappy American musicals after this, as Pasadena Playhouse’s splendid revival of the 1953 Cole Porter-Abe Burrows musical Can-Can defied all my expectations—or lack of them. Perhaps it’s the saucy new updated book by Joel Fields and David Lee (who also directs their sparkling and charmingly off-color new adaptation in suitably grand style) or perhaps it’s the infectious ensemble cast featuring some the best musical theatre talent LA has to offer.
Then it could be Roy Christopher’s mammoth and spectacularly handpainted art nouveau set designs, or Steve Orich’s precision musical direction leading his 11-piece onstage orchestra, or Patti Columbo’s eye-popping breakneck choreography, but whatever the reason or combination thereof, simply this Can-Can can — and does — provide one of the best musical evenings of the season.
When I think of Can-Can I immediately conjure the dastardly film version with Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra, who was about as well cast as a stiff Parisian magistrate as it would be if Donald Rumsfeld were tapped to be the next Harry Potter. I also picture Nikita Khrushchev visiting the set in Hollywood sometime before his infamous shoe-pounding appearance at the UN, doing everything but sporting a woody on the Evening News thanks to the flirting of Juliet Prowse and her gang of comely petticoat-clad chorines.
But of course the right thing to think of when conjuring memories of Can-Can is Porter’s most enduring tunes from this all but forgotten otherwise minor musical, including “C’est Magnifique,” “I Love Paris,” and “It’s All Right With Me.” What I don’t remember is much of a script but, thankfully, Fields and Lee have successfully changed that.
Set in a wild nightclub in the heart of the Parisian red light district in 1893, Can-Can stars the spectacular Michelle Duffy in the MacLaine role, finding a mix perfectly right in the middle between Sophie Tucker and Audrey Hepburn, and the charisma between her randy but vulnerable club owner Pistache and Kevin Earley as her enamored but conflicted Aristide (“Parisian judges don’t fall in love with girls from Montmartre,” you see) is a palpable entity here—eliciting a spontaneous and excited applause when the hesitant lovers finally work it all out.
To ever say Earley is in anything but fine voice would be silly, since this guy has the best pipes on the west coast, but here he also gets a wonderful opportunity to show off what a knockout comedian he is besides. And speaking of delightful comedic performances, David Engels is side-splitting as villainous art critic Hilare, doing everything but twirling his moustache while wooing Yvette Tucker’s naïve Claudine with “Come Along With Me” and later sharing a dangerous looking and breathtakingly staged fencing match with Earley, obviously well-rehearsed by fight choreographer Tim Weske.
Tucker’s Claudine is charming and the high kicking-est of all the girls, again a perfect match for Amir Talai as her freeloading and boorish boyfriend Boris, who defends his status as a starving artist in the showstopping number “Never, Never Be An Artist” with Early, Jeffrey Landman’s Hercule and Justin Robertson’s Etienne. Art “is the only way to make a living,” we’re told in song, “that guarantees you won’t earn a living.” Or, when Boris insists he’s an artist and not a street hustler to Hilare, the response is, “Yes, that’s a gray area, I’ll grant you.”
The supporting cast is a tremendous asset here, with the magnificent line of impressively high-kicking squealing showgirls (who are told by Pistache to “powder up” before performing the Bal du Paradis Dance Hall’s “special” can-can) actually equaled by the show-males here, particularly recent New York transplant Jonathan Sharp, the most focus-pulling and eye-catching chorusboy since George Chakiris first soared to stardom while backing Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas—and a guy also plays a mean accordion just to add to the atmospheric Parisian street scene milieu.
Aside from the heap of risqué jokes and frequent groaners (“A watched stove always rolls downhill”) Fields and Lee have contributed to Can-Can, they’ve also inventively added a great character called Le Petomane, here featuring a hilariously underplayed Robert Yacko as the real life and highly successful “fart-iste” of the era who could actually perform tunes by breaking wind into a tube leading from his…er… derriere, to be quite French about it. As much Mexican food as I consume, it’s led me to wonder if I might seek a new career path myself this late in my life.
Lee admits in his program notes accompanying this knockout and inventive restructuring of the old warhorse Can-Can: “If someone leaves the theatre and says, ‘Gosh, I remember seeing this show years ago, but I don’t remember it working so well,’ then we will be happy.” Well, Mr. Lee, that someone would be me.
Can-Can plays through Aug. 5 at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Av., Pasadena; for tickets, call 626.356.PLAY.