REVIEWS: Irma la Douce

Irma La Douce
Theatre - October 20, 2008
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

A musical originally directed in London and New York by Peter Brook? With dance music by John Kander? And with a French recording with Zizi Jeanmaire and Roland Petit? This could only be one show. While Broadway has recently seen such musicals as Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities with French settings, it was left to Musicals Tonight! to bring back that most Gallic of French musicals, the 1960 international hit, Irma la Douce in its staged concert version. Vanessa Lemonides in the title role embodies that gamine quality that so few actresses have and that is so typically Parisian.

It is not entirely surprising that the sound of Irma la Douce suggests chanteuse Edith Piaf as the music was actually composed by one of the Little Sparrow’s favorite composers, Marguerite Monnot. The Gallic flavor of Alexandre Breffort’s original book and lyrics have been vividly captured in the English translation by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman, who had previously collaborated on the English hit, Expresso Bongo. Thomas Sabella-Mills’ production skillfully establishes the music hall atmosphere of the original while musical director Rick Hip-Flores creates the perfect aural atmosphere, playing both piano and accordion.

Irma la Douce is set in the Paris that the tourist never sees, that of the underworld which has its own private argot: a “poule” is a streetwalker, a “mec” is her pimp, a “flic” is a cop, and “grisbi” is money. All of these words are necessary to tell this story which is narrated by Bob-le-Hotu, proprietor of Pigalle’s Bar des Inquiets. Irma is the streetwalker with the heart of gold who falls in love with law student Nestor-le-Fripe, i.e. the tattered. Desiring to have Irma all to himself, Nestor disguises himself as a middle aged man, M. Oscar who becomes Irma’s only client – besides Nestor, of course. Nestor finally becomes jealous of Irma’s interest in Oscar and “kills” him off. He is arrested and sentenced to time on Devil’s Island. However, he escapes, clears his name, and is reunited with Irma in the show’s happy ending.

The score of Irma la Douce is most famous for the hero and heroine’s lovely duet, “Our Language of Love.” However, its charms are varied and many, including the haunting ballad, “The Bridge of Caulaincourt,” the sprightly “Dis-Donc,” the rousing “There is Only One Paris for That,” and the stirring title song. The opening number, "Valse Milieu,” makes you want to get up and dance. Sabella-Mills has kept the costumes color coordinated in black and white with sudden touches of color which help create a sense of community in this foreign setting. His choreography for the “Arctic Ballet,” a dream sequence on Nestor’s way across the North Atlantic, is decidedly witty.

The only woman in the show, Lemonides with her French accent, pert smile and animated personality, remains the center of attention. In the dual role of Nestor/Oscar, Wade McCollum has created two entirely believable characters, though he is more Parisian in the second role. As the narrator Bob-le-Hoto, a combination of Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier, John Alban Coughlan has a mature charm all his own. The quartet of underworld types played by Eric Imhoff, Kevin Sims, Selby Brown and Jeffrey Nauman add able support while creating distinctly different personalities. As the dethroned underworld kingpin, Justin Sayre offers a note of melancholy. Damian Buzzerio’s corrupt Inspector adds a touch of reality to this bittersweet fable.

Musicals Tonight! has given an excellent account of Irma la Douce, not seen locally in many decades. The Parisian charms of this most French entertainment, closest to what we now call a cabaret musical, have not dated at all in the intervening years since its English language premiere at London’s Lyric Theatre in 1958. With a fine cast in excellent voice, and with superb accompaniment by Rick Hip-Flores, Irma la Douce is a pleasing musical entertainment.

Irma La Douce, A Body of Water, Romantic Poetry
DC Theatre - October 24, 2008
Reviewed by Richard Seff

Mel Miller has been bringing Musicals Tonight! to New Yorkers since 1998. What are they? They are a sort of watered down version of Encores!, which means only that they are staged concert readings produced on a tiny budget in a small theatre, with minimum lighting and scenic effects, and orchestrations for one, two or sometimes three instruments. The cast is made up of Equity performers, but the star wattage is dim - that is not to say that the talent onstage is dim, but it’s only rarely that a name recognizable to the public is up there. However, that’s half the fun.

Take Miller’s latest effort, Irma La Douce, a small, sweet musical from 1960, with French and English roots. The French original had a score by Marguerite Monnot with book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort. Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman adapted it into English and it enjoyed a long run in London and again for fifteen months on Broadway with its original stars, Keith Michell and Elizabeth Seal. It has great Gallic charm, lots of lighthearted and romantic lyrics, and its music is in the Becaud-Brel-LeGrand tradition, which is saying a lot. It’s rich, accessible, satisfying.

This sort of soufflé demands actors who can sing, singers who can act, and both must be willing to throw caution to the wind and get downright silly at times. This time out Miller, with the help of his casting director Stephen DeAngelis, has come up a winner, for his three leads, none of whom were known to me, are on the nose perfection, and all the more exciting because I was able to ‘discover’ them. I only hope that casting directors leave their desks and their computers long enough to catch this romp, for it boasts a very talented cast. For the record, ‘Irma’ is played deliciously by Vanessa Lemonides. This charmer combines qualities of the young Eartha Kitt, Chita Rivera, Liliane Montevecchi, combines them into something very much her own, with a voice that’s as soothing as honey in her upper register, as brassy as brass in her lower.

Her leading man (who technically plays two roles) is Wade McCollum. I met him briefly as I was leaving the theatre, and learned he’d ‘just arrived in New York,’ had worked in Chicago and other regional theatres, and played everything from I Am My Own Wife to The Merchant of Venice at Portland Stage in Oregon. Welcome to New York, Mr. McCollum; you can sing, you can act, you have star quality.

John Alban Coughlan plays the compère, a character called ‘Bob’, with ease and great charm.  He gets the evening off to a great start by relaxing us with “The Valse Milieu” which works on many levels. It tells us where we are, where we’re going, who’s going with us, and throws in a lesson on the slang of that milieu. Mr. Coughlan (and I’m guessing) is not French, but you’d never know it. He could replace Chevalier in several of Maurice’s roles. I’m sorry this runs only until October 26, but I couldn’t ignore letting you know about it, because Musicals Tonight will be offering Tovarich, Early to Bed, Cabaret Girl (not Cabaret; this 1922 musical is by Jerome Kern and PG Wodehouse), and Cole Porter’s You Never Know. Of course you never know if the cast will be up to La Douce, but I suspect they will all be worth your while if you find yourself in our neck of the woods during the coming season.

Irma La Douce - October 18, 2008
Reviewed by Howard Kissel

Musicals Tonight! has been doing staged readings of forgotten musicals for a few years less than City Center Encores!, but the shows they do really are forgotten, and, given the limited nature of the physical productions, clearly no one is imagining they can be moved to Broadway.

When they were in their original home, the so-called Midtown YMHA on 14th Street (because when it was built, in the teens of the last century, 14th Street really was midtown), they presented Rodgers and Hart's Dearest Enemy, which featured the song "Here In My Arms." Last year, in the McGinn-Cazale Theater, their current home, at 76th and Broadway, they did the Off-Broadway hit Ernest in Love, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest by Lee Pockriss and Anne Croswell (whose Tovarich begins on Oct. 28.)

Their current offering is Irma La Deuce, with a score by the woman who wrote some of Piaf's greatest hits, Marguerite Monnot. As Mel Miller, the founder of Musicals Tonight!, noted in his introduction, the same year that Irma opened on Broadway, 1960, Monnot had a song on the Hit Parade, the immortal "Itsy Wity Teeny Weeny Polka-Dot Bikini."

I can't think of any other French show that ever made its way to Broadway (in this case via the West End of London), which may account for why it is so rarely revived. It requires a certain Gallic flair that, like Swiss wines, may be too delicate to export.

Irma was made into a movie of astonishing vulgarity in which its score served only as background music. (Shirley Maclaine played the title role, so maybe the vulgarity was not so astonishing.) Its story is really quite contorted -- a man so falls in love with Irma that he plays both her pimp and her sole customer, so he does not have to share her with anyone.

One of the fascinating things about that original production was that it was directed by Peter Brook. Yes, that Peter Brook. Only a few years later would he direct his memorable King Lear and only a year after that the epochal Marat/Sade. But he invested Irma with a sense of improvisation and a manic energy that made one overlook its artificiality.

Given the restrictions on staged readings, it is understandable that this revival does not have the force of the original. It benefits from a young actress named Vanessa Limonides, who makes Irma enormously winning. Wade McCollum, as her lover, sings well but he lacks the panache this role requires. John Alban Coughlan, as the narrator, has a lethargic quality that hurts the playfulness of the piece. The hard-working chorus is full of elan.

Whatever its shortcomings, Irma has been well staged and choreographed. It is nice to have a second look at a very special show.

Irma la Douce · October 15, 2008
Reviewed by Martin Denton

As far as I can tell, Musicals Tonight!'s production of Irma la Douce is the first appearance of this show on a New York stage since its Broadway bow, back in 1960. Irma is arguably the finest score of this vintage that hasn't been showcased in a first-class revival on or off Broadway; so Mel Miller's mounting is thrilling and illuminating for fans of the so-called Golden Age of Musicals.

What an interesting show it turns out to be! I know it from its cast album and from the film that Billy Wilder made of it—a Jack Lemmon/Shirley MacLaine vehicle that kept the title and the broad outline of the story but, bizarrely, dispensed almost entirely with Marguerite Monnot's remarkable score. So the chance to see Irma la Douce as it was originally experienced nearly 50 years ago, with the English book and lyrics by Julian More, David Heneker, and Monty Norman, is pretty revelatory.

This is, as the show's narrator Bob explains right from the outset, the story of a poule, which as we soon find out is argot for prostitute. Irma la Douce is the first person we see in this show (and the only woman in it); though the plot is relentlessly comic and fantastical, there's no getting past the melancholy of this irresistible woman—indeed, it pervades just about every note of Monnot's music, from the opening strains of "Valse Milieu," which begins the show, to the last thing we hear Irma sing, a reprise of the signature ballad "Our Language of Love."

Irma's mec (pimp), Polyte-le-Mou, is boss of the shady characters who congregate at Bob's Bar des Inquiets in Pigalle (Paris); he's in cahoots with a corrupt police inspector. When naive law student Nestor wanders into Bob's (probably by mistake), he is offended by Polyte's shabby treatment of Irma, and challenges him. Surprisingly, he manages to intimidate Polyte, and finds himself in the unlikely position of becoming Irma's new mec. But Nestor is the jealous type, and doesn't like that other men are sleeping with the woman he loves (for Irma and Nestor have fallen in love, pretty much at first sight). So Nestor invents M. Oscar, a wealthy man whom he pretends to be and who becomes Irma's only client. But even this arrangement manages to inflame Nestor's jealousy, so he "murders" M. Oscar. Unfortunately, he gets caught, arrested, and sent to Devil's Island.

If the foregoing synopsis sounds like the stuff of socially conscious protest drama rather than the screwball comedy that Irma la Douce mostly is, well, then I've described it for you accurately. What struck me most of all about this show that, it turns out, I knew very little about, is how Brechtian it is. Bob, the narrator/bartender, breaks the fourth wall all the time; the idea that everyone is corruptible and that money can buy anything is the predominant theme of the piece. The light-hearted Monty Python-ish farce feels quite grafted onto the cynical, moody story.

It makes for an odd balance, and director Thomas Sabella-Mills has not, I think, had enough time with his actors to achieve it successfully. The songs, under the musical direction/accompaniment of Rick Hip-Flores, work best, especially the fine harmonies of the mecs in "Sons of France," "There is Only One Paris for That," and "From a Prison Cell." The comedy, requiring split-second timing to really succeed, works less well; for one thing, the Musicals Tonight! convention of having the cast members hold their scripts in hand throughout makes for cumbersome moves during the various sight gags. Sabella-Mills has the actors adopting French accents, which they drift in and out of—this seems like an unnecessary idea since everybody in the show is from the same place, and it sometimes makes it hard for the razor-sharp wit of lyrics like "But" and "Le Grisbi is le Root of le Evil in Man" to be clearly heard.

Vanessa Lemonides triumphs as Irma; she's sexy and vulnerable and warm and funny in the role, and she dances and sings beautifully. Her two big numbers, "Dis-Donc" and the title song, are definite highlights.

I am very glad to have seen Irma la Douce at Musicals Tonight! It's now pretty clear to me that this is not a show that's likely to be revived anywhere else anytime soon; so for all of you out there who have been curious about this most atypical musical comedy from Broadway's past, don't miss out on the chance to see it.

Return to previous page