It’s not top-of-the-line Cole Porter – like, say, “Anything Goes” or “Kiss Me, Kate.” But “Can-Can,” now playing at Circle Theatre, is an attractive, delicious confection from the golden age of Broadway musicals. There’s lots of razzle-dazzle and even second-rate Cole Porter is still pretty swell. A few of the numbers, like “It’s All Right With Me,” “C’est Magnifique,” and “I Love Paris,” are beloved standards.
Yes, the thin, predictable romantic storyline does become rather ho-hum, and the lyrics are not really witty in the usual Porter manner. But this Circle production provides such wonderful eye and ear candy, one’s attention never flags. There’s everything from a fencing duel to a Garden of Eden masquerade ball.
The leads really take command of the stage. In fact, the whole company – pretty girls and handsome guys – has fine singing voices and moves well. Kevin Bellie’s direction is brisk and his choreography is delightful. There are definitely many high points in this spirited revival of the 1953 warhorse.
The story unfolds in an illegal but highly profitable café in the Montmartre section of Paris, where lovely young ladies dance the provocative but prohibited Can-Can. Think of Belle Epoque Paris – the world of Toulouse Lautrec and Art Nouveau. Circle Theatre vividly recreates this colorful, seductive milieu.
Le Mome Pistache (Elizabeth Lanza) is the proud owner of the Bal du Paradis. Her joint, formerly a laundry, now features a bevy of showgirls lifting their dresses to show off their knickers while they kick up their heels doing the lively but forbidden title dance that was sweeping Paris in 1893.
The plot boils down to an intense conflict between free expression and censorship. A self-righteous, hard-nosed but good-looking Parisian judge named Aristide (Jeremy Rill) is determined to uphold the strict moral laws and shut down Pistache’s dancehall. As you might predict, however, this straight-laced gent falls in love with the sexy nightclub hostess in the process.
One of Pistache’s lead dancers, the charming Claudine (Rachel Quinn), has an outrageous parasitic live-in boyfriend named Boris. (Gwen Verdon became a star overnight, winning the first of her four Tony awards playing Claudine in 1953.)
Boris (Robert Deason), an egotistical Bulgarian sculptor who has no talent, is like some annoying and dumb character from a bad sketch comedy, or possibly one of the long-lost “Three Stooges.” Unfortunately, he’s on stage so much he often seems like he’s the protagonist. Entirely too much time is spent on this second-banana couple.
When a slick and sleazy art critic (Mat Labotka) seems attracted to dancer Claudine, her sponging boyfriend Boris loans her out in exchange for a positive review in a Parisian art journal. Some of the underlying misogyny in this material – men living off their women, some even pimping their girlfriends or slapping, punching, and tossing them around in the brutal Apache dance – is disturbing in these more modern times.
I’m aware a number of versions of this show exist. Apparently the book (everything that’s not singing and dancing) by Abe Burroughs has endured an ongoing makeover for half a century. Although Burroughs had just written the ever popular “Guys and Dolls,” this show is decidedly messy. I’m not sure if the Circle version uses the original 1953 book or one of the myriad updates. But what we see is serviceable and definitely has plenty of highlights.
Some may recall the 1960 Hollywood version of this musical. I do not, which surprises me. The 20th Century Fox moguls threw out most of the original book and score, then chose to showcase Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine in the lead roles. It was definitely the age of the Rat Pack.
Allison Kane is the musical director. Her musicians are Justin Kono, Hank Horton, Kelly Shivuya, and Anita Darwish. Unfortunately, the amplified backstage music of these sweeping Cole Porter orchestrations sometimes sounds like a slightly tinny wedding band.
But the visual splendor of the Circle production of “Can-Can” is especially top-rate. Designer Jesus Perez and staff have created a vast variety of eye-popping costumes.
Bob Knuth, long known for working wonders in Circle’s rather intimate performance space, designed a deeply dimensional dancehall set that adapts into multiple locations. Knuth creates a feeling of far more depth than is actually there with layers of scarlet-colored “scenery” proscenium curtains. Lori Willis was the scenic painter. Beth Scheible is the stage manager.