Tony award-winning Parisian-born dancer and actress Liliane Montevecchi is the immensely professional and attention-grabbing star of “Mistinguett,” a musical comedy playing at the Opera Comique until April 28. The show sets the most famous songs of France’s most celebrated music hall performer within a lamely constructed storyline. Only Montevecchi, unbelievably 68 years old, and two of her female colleagues — Ginette Garcin as the dresser Ernestine, and Noelle Musard as a formidably comical Comedie Francaise diva — shine above the ambient mediocrity.
The Opera Comique, which saw the birth of Bizet’s “Carmen” and Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande,” was taken over in the fall by Jerome Savary, who 30 years ago founded the rowdy and iconoclastic Grand Magic Circus. Co-writer and director of “Mistinguett,” Savary got the idea for the show and the leading lady from veteran U.S. producer Mel Howard, his first employer in the theater.
In “Mistinguett” the aging star, fresh from a triumphant tour in the U.S., has been hired as “meneuse de revue” at the Casino de Paris (from 1972 to 1978, Montevecchi herself performed those duties at the rival Folies Bergere). Advance bookings are disastrously low, so Casino management dreams up a headline-grabbing but fictional romance for the star with a 25-year-old actor, Jacques Marchand. An “All About Eve” subplot, meanwhile, has Mistinguett befriending a pushy, starry-eyed dancer called Lily, competently performed by Savary’s daughter, Nina.
Lily becomes entangled with Marchand, leaving Mistinguett, who for all her cynicism had started to fall for him, to bemoan her lonely fate. She drops out of the revue just before a first-night finale, only to drop back in after being assured that the public is her true love. Final curtain.
It has, of course, all been done before, which would not matter were the result artistically more convincing — everyone loves Mistinguett’s songs (the usually stuffy opening-night Paris audience was singing along with the choruses), and everyone loves a well-told tale of showbiz romance.
But Savary and Franklin Le Naour’s script, and Savary’s archly self-conscious presentation and lack of inventiveness, weigh everything down. The director’s chorus girls, admittedly a pretty sight, were in the foyer handing out programs — an old Magic Circus trick. Stepping out of role, Jean-Marc Thibault appeared stage-front, prologue-like, to set the scene and merely stated the obvious, that the show was about Mistinguett.
The dialogue is lackluster, the pace unforgivably slow, the plot frequently implausible. Underdeveloped and unimaginative dance routines merely embarrass when concluded with “howzat?” appeals for applause. A better dancer and singer than she is actress, Montevecchi, however, is a punchy, sharp-tongued Mistinguett. Thrilling throughout, and with her audience in the palm of her hand, she saves the show.