Musical Theater West’s “Silk Stockings,” however reinvigorated (their word) by helmer Stuart Ross’s updating and rewrite, amply explains why this wan adaptation of 1939 Greta Garbo classic “Ninotchka” is almost never revived. Hoary Cold War jokes and a substandard Cole Porter score, his last, leave one blinking in disbelief. Even if given a more attractive and accomplished production than this one, the Soviet-era relic merits not a rehabilitation but a purge.
This is the one about the stiff-necked Russian envoy (Julie Ann Emery) on assignment to Paris, enchanted out of her socialist convictions and proletarian undergarments into gay romance and lingerie of “Satin and Silk,” as tuner’s most retro number is titled. Absent the original film’s Ernst Lubitsch touch of wry, understated wit and political savvy, the story reeks of sexism and condescension.
Garbo’s significant mission, to sell czarist jewels and forestall a USSR famine, becomes a ridiculous effort to reclaim a famous Soviet composer (Andy Taylor) from lending his music to a Hollywood tuner allegedly inspired by “War and Peace.” (Why it’s being shot in Paris is anyone’s guess.) There’s no credible threat from the Motherland in the original libretto or new rewrite, and hence no urgency or reality in the storytelling.
Manfully rooting among the earlier versions (including the 1957 Fred Astaire pic) but getting himself in deeper, Ross sets the tale in 1960 when the Cold War was hottest, further emphasizing the triviality of its politics. Mincing comrades and firing squad jokes don’t sit comfortably with references to the U-2 incident. When the vulgar Hollywood pic becomes acclaimed as a healer of East/West tensions, all one can think is “Are they kidding?”
Show is neither satire nor fable any more, just a patchwork quilt of elements failing to live in peaceful coexistence.
Turning off the brain to appreciate “Silk Stockings” as sheer extravaganza isn’t so easy either, given the cavalcade of Porter’s lamest songs (granted, he was desperately ill at the time). Each number is worse than the one before it, with the morose, fetishistic title tune taking the booby prize over the tedious “Hail Bibinski” or manically repeated “I Got the Red Blues.”
Show is so light on hits (just “All of You”), Ross has to interpolate the 1929 ballad “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” which actually proves one of the bright spots in John Glaudini’s delicate harp-and-violin orchestration and Russian lyrics. Another plus is Taylor, who finds the right low-key style to maintain character reality, matching up well with vivacious Darcie Roberts as the soubrette star of that dopey movie.
Lee Martino’s typically energetic choreography livens things up, even when there seems little reason for a number; and the three commissars of comedy relief (Stuart Pankin, Nick DeGruccio and Paul Kreppel) deliver until they start out-hamming each other in singing about Siberia (“where the snow is so superior”; good grief).
Unfortunately, the principal players barely make an impact. Emery’s upper-register voice (and shaky Russian accent, lapsing into Yiddish) belie Ninotchka’s sincerity. Since her socialist fervor seems put-on, her transformation lacks weight. And John Scherer’s Steve, the movie director who bewitches her, is just a glad-handing lump in an ill-fitting tuxedo. As they sing “It’s a Chemical Reaction, That’s All,” there’s no chemistry to be found.
The production is drab, underfurnished and underlit, the wardrobe unflattering and most of the action too broad for words. It’s a major miscalculation for the usually tasteful Musical Theater West company.