At minimum, any musical entitled “Can-Can” promises hot dancing, pretty girls, lively comedy and a colorful period setting. Unfortunately, those qualities evaporate by intermission in the Pasadena Playhouse revival in favor of thin and unconvincing romance. Despite a sprightly Cole Porter score featuring standards like “C’est Magnifique” and “It’s All Right With Me,” and Joel Fields and David Lee’s much-vaunted revision of Abe Burrows’ original 1953 libretto, “Can-Can” remains a long way from escaping its perennial rap, namely (to crib from an earlier Porter lyric): tunes, de-lovely; choreography, delightful; script, deficient.
Setting is fin-de-siecle Paris –the Paris of Art Nouveau, Toulouse-Lautrec and libertinism –and the ostensible premise is a conflict between free expression and censorship as personified by nitery owner Pistache (Michelle Duffy), a live-live-live Auntie Mame type, and priggish judge Aristide (Kevin Earley), who’s determined to enforce indecency laws against the notorious can-can. Theme couldn’t be more timely, and the coincidence of U.S. and French flags’ sharing the same tricolors is used at least once to push the point home.
“Can-Can” stakes out its position in favor of Pistache and high living early and often, with the charismatic Duffy taking to Roy Christopher’s downstage runway to flirt with us cabaret patrons like Sally Bowles and the Emcee rolled into one. “Money spent on pleasure is never wasted!,” she cries, and Porter responds with a slew of arch and naughty numbers — “Never Give Anything Away” and “Live and Let Live” are representative titles — while Patti Colombo’s thrillingly athletic dances embody Porter’s raciness. That can-can is smokin’, no question (though one wishes the napkin-waving waiters were kept on the sidelines for the final kick line).
Incredibly, however, not only is the censorship plot wrapped up in act one — the dancing’s put on hold too, the girls virtually disappearing for the better part of an hour — but the stage is given over to a pair of drearily conventional musical comedy romances that play out directly at odds with the show’s sophisticated ethos.
The confident Pistache unaccountably becomes fluttery. “A Parisian judge can’t love a girl from Montmartre,” she frets, even though he’s professed devotion to her only moments before, and if her career attests to anything it’s that anything is possible. (Among script’s less felicitous additions is a shared past back in their old village, which means the characters can’t discover each other as they go along.) For his part, Aristide, too readily succumbing to Montmartre temptations, is transformed by a sip of absinthe from a strong antagonist into a blubbering twit, and a blackmail plot is briefly introduced and blithely forgotten.
A second couple right out of “Oklahoma!” features dancer Claudine (Yvette Tucker) as the Ado Annie torn between starving sculptor Boris (Amir Talai) and slick art critic Hilare (David Engel), who wines and dines Claudine while promising to promote her boyfriend’s career, represented by bizarre sculptures toothlessly satirizing modern art in the manner of hoary TV sketch comedy.
Hilare, the one character truly committed to Pistache’s love-as-you-please philosophy, is tellingly made the villain, not only getting his comeuppance but emasculated in the process (ironically so, since Engel’s assured and lithe performance is easily the butchest of the bunch). Meanwhile, Boris the talentless sponger, ready to pimp his beloved for the sake of a good review, wins the girl and the acclaim solely because the iron laws of musical comedy dictate that the “normal” couple must triumph in the end.
The art satire is a non-starter, but the subplot could pay off if it took some risks. If the show ended with Hilare, Claudine and Boris making a mutual accommodation (and considerable campy business already suggests Boris might not be immune to Hilare’s charms), the resulting “design for living” would wickedly and amusingly reflect “Can-Can’s” professed worldview.
But alas, show remains stuck in the paradox of expressing French mores of the 1890s while conforming to American mores of the 1950s.
If you can ignore the dumb story and its betrayed themes, “Can-Can” is a bon-bon for the eye thanks to Christopher’s “Moulin Rouge”-influenced false prosceniums, show curtains and rich palette. The ear is treated as well, by Duffy’s magnetism and Earley’s powerful tenor thankfully at odds with his character’s wimpiness, though oddly he keeps singing “Paris” as if it rhymed with “heiress.” The problematic amplification never differentiates between public and private speech, and lines and lyrics emanate too obviously from loudspeakers rather than thesps’ mouths.
Randy Gardell’s colorful costumes exude period detail, albeit resembling theatrical garb rather than lived-in clothing, and some of the makeup takes on a weirdly Expressionist cast. A couple of the can-can girls look to be suffering from what was once called the French disease — one consequence of Pistache’s brand of free loving that “Can-Can” emphatically does not want to get into.
Musical Numbers: “Overture,” “Montmartre,” “Never Give Anything Away,” “Quadrille,” “Maidens Typical of France,” “Live and Let Live,” “Come Along With Me,” “C’est Magnifique,” “Can-Can,” “Come Along With Me” (Reprise), “I Am in Love,” “Allez-Vous En,” “Entr’acte,” “Who Said Gay Paree,” “Montmartre” (Reprise), “It’s All Right With Me,” “Every Man Is a Stupid Man,” “Never, Never Be an Artist,” “I Love Paris,” “If You Loved Me Truly,” “I Love Paris” (Reprise), “C’est Magnifique” (Reprise), “I Love Paris” (Reprise), “Can-Can” (Reprise).