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A CurtainUp Review
Encores! Irma La Douce

"When it opened in September of 1960, Irma La Douce was by far the hippest musical on Broadway.—Jack Viertel, Encores! Artistic Director in his program notes for the Encores! revival of what he dubs "the original hipster musical."
Encores! Irma La Douce Bob McClure and Jen Bowles (Photo: Joan Marcus)
In a milieu that was still attuned to the family oriented musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irma La Douce was a chance for theater goers to experience the sexier, more titillating "Milieu" of poules (street walkers) and mecs (pimps) of this Parisian import. While Irma couldn't compete at the box office with R&H's The Sound of Music 's noble singing nun, it kept audiences filling the seats at the Plymouth Theater for 524 performances. But it took a director who could imbue this small show with just one female to represent all the "ladies of the night" able to offset the nonsensical plot with a flair, spontaneity and lots of energy.

Since that director was a Brit for him this was a prelude to notable avante gard work like Marat/Sade, why not a Scottish director to resuscitate this dated show for the first non-American seeded Encores! musical. Unfortunately John Doyle wasn't the right not the man to save this from being the invaluable staged concert series' first stumble that I can recall.

Maybe this is simply a case of some charming songs but a book that's too hopelessly dated and contrived, not to mention too skimpy to work as more a drawn-out sketch. Maybe Doyle, though an accomplished and innovative director, is just mismatched with this material which calls for a chef more adept at dishing up a light souffle than a heavy bouillabaisse. Maybe it's because the only female character (Jennifer Bowles) sings well and certainly knows how to kick up her legs (she's an acrobat in the musical Matilda) is more gamely energetic than gamine as Irma needs to be and the men who also sing and dance well, also lack Gallic panache .

Probably it's a combination of all these factors that make this Irma La Douce a long two hours, especially the pre-intermission hour.

Whatever. . . despite the creaky plot, the the show does have its pleasures: The rousing opening "Valse Milieu". . .the lovely "Our Language of Love". . .the peppy "Dis-Donc" the haunting "The Bridge of Caulaincourt" at the top of the better second act which also includes and another rouser, "There is Only One Paris for That" and a lovely dreams sequence,"Arctic Ballet."

All the songs would be just enjoyable, if not more so, within in the usual script-in-hand concert staging instead of Mr. Doyle's fully staged and rehearsed set-up. Somehow his staging fails to blend the comic shtick of the Nestor/Mr. Oz transformations and the serious plot elements. Consequently, though Rob McClure makes the most of the switcheroo business, the laughs don't rise above chuckles. Neither are the more serious elements especially moving. The director is at his best in the second act's dreamy "Atlantic Ballet." Fortunately, he has only reduced and not ditched Rob Berman's orchestra and, shades of Sweeney Todd and Company, made the hard working ensemble do extra duty as instrumentalists. The 10-piece band, well positioned above the set (the bar and doorway leading to the street and rooms where Irma conducts her business.

Malcolm Gets does well as the affable Pigalle Bar proprietor and narrator Bob-le-Hotu. He tells us about Irma's love affair with McLure's law student Nestor-le-Fripe, who, in order to have her all to himself, turns himself into the bearded M.Oscar who becomes her only client. That is, except Nestor who naturally becomes jealous of his alter-ego and gets himself sentenced to Devil's Island for killing him — leading to the inevitable escape and happy ending.

For old-times the songs will evoke memories of Edith Piaf which is not surprising since Marguerite Monnot wrote some of Piaf's greatest hits. Hearing her music for Irma is certainly more enjoyable than watching the convoluted story on screen with Shirley MacLaine but with the delightful music ditched except as background.

Encores! production of Irma La Douce
Music by Marguerite Monnot Original Book and Lyrics by Alexandre Breffort
English Book and Lyrics by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman
Directed by John Doyle
Concert adaptation by Mr. Doyle
Choreography by Chase Brock
Music direction by Rob Berman
Cast:Sam Bolen (Frangipane), Jennifer Bowles (Irma-La-Douce), Ben Crawford (Persil-Le-Noir), Stephen DeRosa (Police Inspector), Malcolm Gets (Bob-Le-Hotu), Zachary James (Jojo-Les-Yeux-Sales), Ken Krugman (Roberto-Les-Diams), Rob McClure (Nestor-Le-Fripe), Chris Sullivan (Polyte-Le-Mou), Joseph Medeiros (Client/Tax Inspector) and Joseph J. Simeone (Warder); Mr. Medeiros, Mr. Simeone, Manuel Stark and Caleb Teicher (Other Nighttime Inhabitants of the Milieu).
Set by John Lee Beatty
Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting by Paul Miller
Sound by Scott Lehrer
Music coordinator, Seymour Red Press
Orchestrations by Andre Popp, additional orchestrations by Robert Ginzler
Stage manager, Adam John Hunter. Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, includes inermission
New York City Center(West 55th St. between 6th and 7th Aves.)
From 5/07/14 to 5/11/14
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at May 8th performance
Musical Numbers Act One: Valse Milieu, Noble Sons of France, The Bridge of Caulaincourt, Our Language of Love, She's Got The Lot, Our Language of Love (Reprise), Dis-Donc, Le Grisbi, Wreck of a Mec,That's a Crime
Musical Numbers Act Two: The Bridge of Caulaincourt (Reprise), From a Prison Cell, There Is Only One Paris for That, The Freedom of the Seas, There Is Only One Paris for That (Reprise), Our Language of Love (Reprise), But, Christmas Child
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