The Pasadena Playhouse Through August 5, 2007
Cole Porter stands as one of the brilliant American songwriters. A rich gay Episcopalian from Indiana, his standards have been interpreted by myriad artists and his work is constantly being revisited. One theatre piece, however, is not often seen. His Can-Can from 1952 features several classic songs, but a somewhat disjointed storyline.
The original book was written by Abe Burrows, but when director David Lee recently approached Abe’s son James permission was granted to rework the book. Lee ‘revised’ the book with Joel Fields, and the result is thoroughly enjoyable.
Lee and Fields resolved to include every song Porter wrote for the original production, even reinserting “Who Said Gay Paree” which had been cut before the original production reached Broadway. (The 1960 film version with Sinatra, MacLaine and Chevalier was unsuccessfully supplemented with other Porter songs).
The Pasadena Playhouse production features two strong leads. Michelle Duffy is Pistache, owner and ringleader of the dancehall operating in the shadow of the Moulin Rouge. Her once and future paramour Aristide Forestier is played by the robust Kevin Earley. The sets are clever and suitably colorful, evoking a stylized 1893 Paris.
Act One features far more dancing, mostly variations on the eponymous routine. The best tune in the first half is “C’est Magnifique,” when Pistache and Aristide first get a glimmer that they might renew their youthful infatuation in the countryside. Aristide became a judge after Pistache pursued the bright lights of Paris. Their current vocations put them at odds; he sees the risqué dances at her nightclub as worthy of prosecution. The ubiquitous sidekick couple is the hapless Bulgarian sculptor Boris (Amir Talai) and the prim Claudine (Yvette Tucker). Claudine has of course learned all the notorious dance moves, and is able to live her dream when she steps in as a replacement.
One of the revisions to the original book is the addition of the character Le Petomane, based on the real ‘Flatulist,’ at one time the highest paid performer in France (who said the French are culture snobs). He is played with aplomb by Robert Yacko.
Act Two picks up the pace as the threads of the story become more tightly woven. The influential n’er do well critic Hilaire (David Engel) pursues his dastardly intentions across each of the four main characters. The same comic relief Porter deployed four years earlier in Kiss Me Kate with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is revisited with “Never Never Be An Artist.” The most popular song from Can-Can is “I Love Paris,” and it is given several interpretations to drive the storyline. “It’s All Right With Me” is Earley’s high point.
The most unexpectedly impressive scene starts out blandly comical, a rooftop sword fight. Commencing as a duel of honor between Boris and Hilaire, the fight soon becomes a dashing fight between Hilaire and Aristide. Hilaire gets his comeuppance, the couples are rejoined and the dancing girls return to the stage to flash their knickers one last time.
In a clever breaking down of the fourth wall, Le Petomane solicits from the audience at intermission a series of words (animals and words that rhyme with can). During the curtain call, the cast weaves the proffered words through the reprise of the title song to fine effect. Porter the consummate wordsmith would be pleased.