Irma La Douce is a French cream puff of a musical that should float and dance and soar like a kite caught in a rambling breeze. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the two charming stars at its center, the Encores! production rarely breaks loose from the tug of gravity and remains earthbound.
There have not been very many revivals of this show, which dates to 1956 and a highly successful run in Paris (4 years) and then London (3 years). It landed on Broadway in 1960 in a production that was helmed by renowned director Peter Brook and choreographed by Oona White. Starring Elizabeth Seal, Keith Michell, and Clive Revill, Irma La Douce was a moderate hit here, running a little over a year on Broadway before making the rounds of summer stock (which is where I happened to see it for the first time) before more-or-less disappearing, save for the original cast album (still in print).
The plot is really just an excuse to pull off a lot of silliness, dependent on a pretense that gets out of hand. Nestor le Fripé (Nestor “the disheveled”), a poor law student, falls in love with Irma, a highly successful prostitute. But he quickly decides he no longer is comfortable with her career (which pays the bills for both of them), so he invents a rich older man, “Oscar,” who will become her only client, while Nestor will be her “mec” (pimp). The gag of the show is that “Oscar” is actually Nestor, donning a two-bit fake beard that somehow manages to fool everyone.
Things work out for awhile, but all that flip-flopping between “Oscar” and Nestor is getting to be an exhausting enterprise for our hero, so he decides to get rid of “Oscar” by drowning him in the Seine. Immediately, Nestor is arrested for murder, is convicted, and is packed off to Devil’s Island, along with most of the rest of the cast. The show wraps up with a sequence of events worthy of the Marx Brothers that eventually reunites the two lovers once more.
I mention the Marx Brothers because that’s the level of wackiness it would take to pull off a winning production of Irma La Douce. I envision actors swinging on ropes, falling from the rafters, and running up and down the aisles of the theater. Alas, there is precious little of this kind of zany staging in the Encores! production, and, unfortunately, scenic designer John Lee Beatty, who is retiring after two-decades with Encores!, has chosen this time to build a solid fixed set, when sparse, fly-away pieces would better serve the style of the show.
Under John Doyle’s less-than-inspired direction, Jennifer Bowles exudes a great deal of charm as Irma, and shows lovely loose-limbed skill as a dancer in the two numbers that give choreographer Chase Brock the opportunity to let loose his imagination (the exuberant “Dis Donc” in Act I, and the absurdly improbable “Arctic Ballet” in Act II).
Rob McClure—a very gifted comic actor—tries his best to raise the level of fun as he manically switches between Nestor and “Oscar.” But truthfully he did something similar and with far greater success in the Encores! production of Where’s Charley three years ago, in which he transformed frenetically between the roles of the title character and his “aunt.”
What Irma La Douce has going for it is the original music by French composer Marguerite Monnot, including “Valse Milieu,” “Our Language of Love,” the Piaf-like title song, and the bouncy “Dis Donc.” The always reliable Rob Berman conducts the small (10 players) orchestra performing the original score, allowing the delectable music to come shining through. The English language lyrics by Julian More, David Heneker, and Monty Norman are generally not much more than serviceable, though, and sometimes are forced to the breaking point in order to push a rhyming line. Example:
It's clear to you, it's clear to me
This precious moment had to be
Other moments outclassing,
Guardian angels are passing.
I do believe a production in French (with supertitles if necessary) might do a better job of capturing the show’s helium-balloon spirit.
Ah, dis donc!
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