Perched soulfully at the edge of the stage, Meow Meow sings “Sans toi” (“Without You”), an impassioned meeting of performance and material that’s rich and riveting. But since her standalone number is the only one divorced from the story, its strength points up the weakness of the show surrounding it. Following its runaway hit “Brief Encounter,” Kneehigh’s equally idiosyncratic take on “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is, as expected, brimming with imaginative touches. But this time, effort outstrips the achievement.
Jacques Demy’s iconoclastic 1963 Cannes Palme d’Or winner is the love story between a young umbrella-shop girl and a mechanic who has to leave her to do his military service. Closer to opera than traditional tuner, it features not one word of spoken dialogue: Everything is sung. It is, to say the least, an acquired taste, but Demy’s eye-popping use of super-saturated Eastmancolor and Michel Legrand’s haunting score helped a lot of people acquire it.
Such non-naturalism is meat and drink to helmer-adapter Emma Rice. Kneehigh’s trademark tearing down of the fourth wall and winningly rough-and-ready theatricality held audiences in thrall in previous productions like “Tristan and Yseult.” But Rice’s best work has always been tied to strong script and storytelling. “Umbrellas” has neither.
The movie’s storyline — girl meets boy, now-pregnant girl loses boy to the army, girl is persuaded into smart marriage, boy returns and mends broken heart — was deliberately simple, its dialogue consciously mundane. That allowed room for the sustained, yearning swirl of Legrand’s intensely romantic score as epitomized by the oft-reprised “I Will Wait for You.”
Sung dialogue/plot is notoriously hard to take; recognizing this, Rice adds a master of ceremonies — or, in this case, Maitresse — as a framing device. Meow Meow uses all of her considerable skills to flirt with, entice and engage the audience in all things French at the beginning and end of each section of the story in order bring everyone into the show’s world and calm their fears.
But delicious though her interludes are (scripted by Carl Grose), they prove counterproductive in terms of engagement. Switching between cabaret intros and recitative passages only underlines how artificial it is to sing such baldly informative lines as, “Three soldiers were shot when they were ambushed on patrol.”
Oddly, Rice doesn’t appear to have adjusted the lyrics first heard in Sheldon Harnick’s translation in a production at Gotham’s Public Theater in 1979. Hearing a cast using English accents to sing such American phrases as “I guess” and “trimming the tree” is jarring.
Faced with such self-conscious material, the cast resorts to differing styles. Joanna Riding brings Julie Andrews-esque vowels, diction and precision to Genevieve’s sensible mother. As Genevieve, Carly Bawden glides about emulating the breathy innocence of Catherine Deneuve, but Andrew Durand as her lover looks stranded, as if working in a language he doesn’t quite understand. The higher his voice goes, the stronger it is, but as he stares fixedly out at the auditorium, you wish he would relax into the role.
Orchestrally, the show couldn’t be better. Musical director Nigel Lilley, onstage throughout ramping up the cabaret mood, marshals a band of seven that sounds far bigger. Legrand’s orchestrations of his typically rippling, downward-sigh phrases are given shimmer and color, eschewing the expected accordion overload and giving the harpist a serious workout. Even when the love theme is given full rhapsodic expression, Lilley and sound designer Simon Baker ensure vocals are never swamped.
If the rest of the show had that controlled flair, it would be a winner. Lez Brotherston supplies chirpily atmospheric design (touches of neon, charming models of Cherbourg buildings, a rising crescent moon), but Rice’s helming swiftly hits overkill as it tries everything from puppetwork and cross-gender casting to secondhand choreography. The result feels scattershot, and despite moments of beauty, with no tension, there’s little emotional release.