Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - October 2014
Review by John Kenrick
The photos below are used with the permission of Paper Mill Playhouse.
Looking for some real theatrical excitement, the kind that leaves an audience screaming with joy? Halfway through the first act of Paper Mill's handsome, Broadway-bound revival of Cole Porter's Can-Can, the high stepping dance that gives this show its title is unleashed in one of the most volcanic and breathtaking routines seen on any stage in recent memory. Between Porter's brilliant lyrics, his irresistible, thumping melody, and the electrifying performance of the ensemble, the opening night audience was whipped into a genuine frenzy. The final downbeat unleashed several minutes of old-fashioned, roaring applause -- making this that rarest of creatures, a bona fide show stopper.
While choreographer Patti Colombo and her cast deserved every second of that deafening adulation, the dizzy success of that number put the remainder of this new Can-Can in something of a bind. How do you follow up something so breathtaking? While there is much to enjoy, and even love about this production, I think it has some serious tinkering to do if it really hopes to succeed on Broadway.
The original 1953 production had some book problems, and subsequent productions have made those weaknesses all the more evident. (The stellar but oh so ill-advised film version will not be discussed here.) Joel Fields and David Lee, whose joint credits include writing for the sitcom Frasier, have tried to revise this show while keeping all of the original score (plus one delightful Porter song cut from the original). Their approach has been to borrow ideas from two other hit musicals, namely The Merry Widow and The Full Monty -- and the results are uneven.
Yes, it makes perfect sense to replace the "love at first sight" story line with a "long lost lovers rediscover each other" plot. But threatening to give us a "Can-Can Supreme" (where the ladies would dispense with undergarments and show us their . . . shall we say their Rue de la Paix?) becomes a prolonged case of promising the impossible to the uninterested. Worse yet, the main love story ends with a cheap and clumsy cop out that insults anyone who has sat through two and a half hours waiting for something resembling an intelligent resolution. And while the first five minutes of the sword fight that takes up most of the final scene is great fun, it runs on and on until it ultimately becomes tedious. If the writers can tighten up this hodgepodge, I think they will have a much stronger shot at success on Broadway.
On the plus side, David Lee's direction is swift paced and clear, Rob Bissinger's sets are evocative eye-poppers, Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are absolute knockouts, and Michael Gilliam's lighting is top notch throughout. Ms. Colombo's choreography is excellent -- and if she is given a chance to make the finale anywhere near as thrilling as the first act can-can, audiences will get to go home cheering as loudly as they do earlier in the show.
Best of all, this production boasts a cast that sings Cole Porter's vintage songs with all the power and magic they deserve. Kate Baldwin is ravishingly beautiful as club owner Pastiche, and delivers her songs with the perfect Parisian combination of cynicism and romance. Her renditions of "I Love Paris" and the lesser known gem "Allez-Vous En" are pure heaven. As the stuffy judge who loves her, Jason Daniely is perfectly cast. One of the most gifted tenors in the business, he turns the rarely heard "I Am In Love" into an unexpected highlight -- so unexpected, apparently, that the program neglects to even list the song. When these two veteran talents cross swords, they give the re-cobbled plot some much needed sex appeal -- and their joint performance of "C'est Magnifique" is a treasure.
Michael Berresse portrays a despicable art critic with suave comic relish, making the most of the deliciously silly "Come Along With Me." Megan Sikora is pleasant but not altogether memorable as the lead dancer Claudine, Greg Hildreth wins solid laughs as her buffoonish sculptor boyfriend, and Michael Kostroff damn near steals the whole evening with his endearing and hilarious performance as headwaiter Jean-Louis.
When I saw the 1981 revival of Can-Can, I clearly saw its main problem was utterly inept direction. Soon afterward, I caught a touring production starring Chita Rivera that won standing ovations -- as did the superb 2002 Encores concert version that starred Patti Lupone. With some judicious revision, this production may delight audiences for some time to come. Without it, I fear this Can-Can will be little more than a colorful memory for Paper Mill regulars. I hope the writers will take Mr. Porter's assurance that "there is no trick to a Can-Can" -- and while their work goes on, audiences can certainly relish the sensational title number looking and sounding as good, and in fact better than ever.
This production runs through Oct. 26, 2014.