Bright ideas should count for something, so credit Ted Sod and Lisa Koch, writers of “27 Rue de Fleurus,” with the provocative notion of fashioning a revisionist musical from Alice B. Toklas’ corrective version of her life with literary giant Gertrude Stein. Handsomely designed for its minuscule stage, Frances Hill’s production for Urban Stages features solid leads and strong vocals that do right by the score’s light operetta style. Yet one expects far more cultural and intellectual oomph from a book that invokes literary heavyweights like Stein, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Name-dropping opening number “Salon (Let’s Talk)” sets the smart tone for the musical’s mise en scene — the Parisian apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus where Gertrude (Barbara Rosenblat) and her companion Alice (Cheryl Stern) preside over a fashionable literary salon that attracts artists and writers of international renown, as well as the occasional American feminist and Hollywood movie star.
It’s an inviting scene, to be sure. The oddly angled doors of Roman Tatarowicz’s gleaming white set suggest the women hired a cubist painter as their interior designer. And on the back wall, in blank frames that serve as canvases for Alex Koch’s video projections, are choice bits of the great art works that Gertrude shrewdly collected. In this room, surely, there will be witty talk.
As promised in the clever opener, the salon habitues do, indeed, argue a bit about “impressionism, neo-impressionism, Fauvism, cubism, Dadaism, surrealism” and discuss issues like sexual identity and the nature of genius. But we are quickly reminded by Alice that this is her story — and what she wants to talk about is her relationship with Gertrude.
Stern wears the role of Alice as gracefully as she carries her period costume, a luscious confection by Carrie Robbins that makes the famously plain house-mouse look smart, serious and very feminine. Unfortunately, all Alice has on her mind (“What About Me?”) is how unappreciated she is, and not even Stern, with her perfect pitch and clarity, can make this sound attractive.
Rosenblat projects both the intelligence and gravitas to play Gertrude — and the wit to take Alice’s bossy directives with a grain of salt. Some day she may even get her chance to give that performance, because here the script keeps cutting her down, reducing her to Alice-the-author’s payback version of Stein.
The real problem with the text is that Alice’s grievances don’t go much beyond her repetitive complaint that Gertrude will not acknowledge her as her one and only muse. (“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gertrude snaps. “I am my muse.”)
To her credit, Alice admits, “I made Gertrude’s life miserable.” But a little of her whining goes a long way and does nothing to make us regard Alice with new respect for her intellect or her hidden talents. Despite Stern’s respectful, even affectionate portrayal of her, she comes off as an envious wife, so vindictive that she drives away Gertrude’s guests and precipitates the move from Rue de Fleurus that effectively brings the salon era of their lives to an end.
For all the importance of love and fidelity to Alice, this is not much of a plot subject. And while the three supporting players (the text can accommodate up to nine) make it seem busier by singing their hearts out in multiple roles, these phantom visitors are such broad caricatures of their historical models that they do no more than provide a bit of color.