Can-Can Kicks into a New Era

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Can-Can

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

In 1893, Paris was at the height of the gaudy Belle Epoque era, a time when the city’s most fabulous night clubs flourished, when artists were venerated, when couples dined at the best restaurants, elegant casinos catered to the public and the city was reclaiming its heralded status as a world capital after a mostly strife filled nineteenth century.

And, up on top of a hill in the wild Montmarte district of the city, a judge, Aristide, visits the risqué Bal du Paradis club to shut down what people claim is the sexiest dance hall revue in Europe. At the same time, the influential critic of a large Paris newspaper arrives to see if the show is as hot as everybody says. The drinks are flowing, the band is playing, and the beautiful girls are pulling on their stockings. The police are waiting. On top of all of this, Pistache, the brassy owner of the club, has threatened to produce the banned Can-Can dance. She is terrified of what people will say.

What to do?

Can Can is what to do, and the girls do it very well in an exuberant and flashy revival of the 1953 Broadway hit Can-Can, that became a famous movie. The play, headed for New York, just opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, N.J. The sleepy suburban community will never be the same again.

Can-Can is a bawdy, boisterous show that will please all, not just those that saw the 1960 movie starring Frank Sinatra. The Abe Burrows book has been slightly re-written by Joel Fields and David Lee to give the show a contemporary feel. It is set in 1893 and has 1893 sets and costumes, but the dialogue is modern day. This story could have happened last week (although the girls today would be wearing, well, considerably less clothing).

The plot is simple. The visiting judge discovers that the café owner is his old love of 30 years ago. Should he close the club and ruin her business or let it stay open and fall in love with her again? The evil critic, who bribes people for money and sexual favors, seems ready to wreck everything, but events intervene. Claudine, one of the dancers, is in love with a loud, bragging, but unskilled sculptor and winds up on the arm of the critic. What to do again? It ends up…Well, of course, it ends u on the dance floor.

The strength of the show, over nearly sixty years, has always been the sometimes tender, sometimes thumping music by Cole Porter, highlighted by the Can-Can song, C'est Magnifique and the immortal I Love Paris. Many of the other tunes are enjoyable, too. All are carried off to the brilliant, just terrific, choreography of Patti Colombo. No Paris night club ever erupted like Patti Colombo’s night club. The Paris street corner sets and the Bal du Paradis club, with its orchestra on the mezzanine and domed roof, are some of the best sets in the New York area in years. Set designer Rob Bissinger needs to take a bow.

The musical has plenty of humor, highlighted by Boris Adzinidzinadze’s sculptor exhibit put on for the newspaper critic. Each piece of the Boris’ work exceeds the previous in silliness, but the laughs are from the way the sculptor admires each one (hey, people pay a fortune for this nonsense). There is also a witty court arraignment in which the arrested dance hall courses identify themselves as Marie Antoinette and Joan of Arc.

The show does have its problems. It runs just over two and a half hours and needs to be shortened by fifteen minutes or so. There is a well done but pretty needless dueling scene that could go. There are a lot of songs in Can-Can and three or four could be dropped. The plot rambles at times and could be tightened up a little.

Director David Lee has taken this new Can-Can and worked a miracle, though. From the moment Pistache sashays across the stage at the start of the show to talk to the audience to the last leg kicking moment of the musical, his show is a hit, One of the reasons, besides Porter’s music, is the superb acting by the stars of the show. Kate Baldwin, a Tony nominee, grabs the show by its throat and does not let go. She is the dazzling centerpiece. Lee also gets wonderful performances from Jason Danieley as the judge, Megan Sikora as Claudine, Greg Hildreth as sculptor Boris Adzinidzinadze and Michael Berresse as the critic Hilaire Jussac.

The Bal du Paradis club in the show is fictional, but not by much. In the 1890s, the Montmartre district ruled Paris nightlife. In the 1890s, the city was home to the fabled Follies Bergere. The Moulin Rouge night club was the diamond in the nighttime world. Several clubs featured the can-can dancers, Burlesque shows permeated Parisian night life and women like Pastiche were rather common in the entertainment world. People tired of life went to the opulent clubs to live a fantasy life. Paris entertainment was a tidal wave, culminating in the Paris World’s Fair of 1900. It was a heady time in the entire city, not just the folks who inhabited the Bal du Paradis.

Can-Can kicks on, and kicks well

PRODUCTION: the play is produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Sets: Rob Bissinger, Costumes: Anne Hould Ward, Lighting: Michael Gilliam, Sound: Randy Hansen, Fight Director: Tim Weske. The show is directed by David Lee. It runs through October 26.

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