Two elements attracted me to the Medicine Show Theatre’s revival of the 1928 musical Paris: its composer Cole Porter and singer/actress colleague Sarah Engelke. After seeing a performance last night, I can testify that those are still the two reasons anyone should see it.
Over the last few years, my research on vaudevillians has led to to a corresponding investigation into early Broadway and Hollywood as well. The original production of Paris, for example, starred Irene Bordoni, profiled here. Meanwhile, the Countess has been working on her own project about chorus girls. So we were both eager to see this show; it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle. I greedily (and unrealistically) want to see all these old pre-war musicals revived and just as Medicine Show has done it, with an uncompromising approach to the text. I vastly prefer these older shows to more modern musicals, with their inferior songs and witless books. Plus, it’s a public service to expose people to a major chunk of theatrical history that has essentially been wiped clean from the modern repertory for over half a century. (Medicine Show hasn’t dumbed down a thing. Two of Porter’s songs from the show include references to Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Do you know who she was? You will if you go here.)
The content of Paris does not bore nor disappoint, though it was standard enough fare for its time. It has a funny (if conventional), and farcical plot about a young Boston socialite (John Russell) who wants to marry a Parisian actress (Engelke), but must overcome the objections of his Puritanical mother (Barbara Vann, also the show’s director). In short order the tables turn, and the mother becomes the wild, carousing one, now the embarrassment to her son instead of the other way around. The book by Martin Brown (whose last Broadway show this was) serves the plot but does not sparkle; there are no quotable, Coward-like lines to chortle over on the way home from the theatre. The saving grace is the contribution of Porter, whose first big Broadway success this was, thanks to songs like “Let’s Do It”, and “Let’s Misbehave”. To their credit, the Medicine Show folks have used this opportunity to restore some original Porter songs cut from the original 1928 production, and some other obscure early Porter songs as well.
As for Engelke, I had no idea. She makes me ashamed to have ever been on stage. She has something going on the entire time, fills each moment with life, fills each beat with some angle of business, is determined never to bore us for a second, and doesn’t. Her “French accent” is surprisingly good. While it wouldn’t fool a diplomat, it’s good enough for the purposes of comedy. And, as will surprise no one, her singing voice is terrific. I hope she gets many more opportunities to display her multifarious talents on the boards; that would be something like justice.
Unfortunately she shines all the more in contrast with her surroundings. To be fair, musicals aren’t this company’s main thing. As they admit in their program notes, they began mounting them in the 1980s to pay bills when they couldn’t draw audiences for the work they actually cared about. The problem is, to do something well, it HAS to be your main thing, the thing you love most in the world, every detail must matter. The production as a whole is a community theatre style cornucopia of dropped lines, leisurely entrances, shaky singing voices, and the damnedest collection of rummage-sale oddments for sets, costumes and props. On one side of the set, the Countess noted, was a birdcage full of garbage. At one point, the romantic lead tripped and fell down (and he wasn’t even dancing at the time)! Part of the problem must be that Vann, though one of the best in the cast for acting if not for singing, is also the director. There is definitely a sense of split focus and too-much-bitten-off, of no one at the helm. Symptoms of exhaustion are rampant. (Note: Vann is also the company’s artistic director and she’s been at it for 41 years. Doubtless she has a constituency of fans who’ll overlook the faults and loyally cheer the company on, and I consider such loyalty legitimate. As a latecomer to the party, I can’t help but come with a different perspective). Still, you won’t get many chances in your life to see this musical. The current production is up through the end of the month. For more details, go here.