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A CurtainUp Review
La Vie Noir
By Elyse Sommer
Cody's connection to the movies goes back to being named after the psychopath in White Heat because he was portrayed by his mom's favorite movie star, James Cagney. To play Cody, who until he got "over-saturated," taught a course in 1930s and 1940s gangster movies, we have Jim Neu who just happens to be the author of this nifty little sendup of just such movies.
La MaMa e.t.c.'s postage stamp sized stage has not deterred Keith McDermott, who's been Neu's frequent director, from creating a production loaded with atmosphere. Meg Zeder's deliciously chintzy bar set even includes an elevator to deliver the rest of the cast along with a picture window through which we can keep an eye on the increasingly ominous storm (a marvel of Jacob Burckhardt's stage craftmanship). As for the people entering the bar as the elevator reaches the 40th floor, each could have stepped right out of some long ago black and white flick. All are different and too eccentric to pass as your average Heartland citizen and, in typical noir fashion, a common thread of obsession, anxietiy and disappointment runs through the histories that come to light before the storm runs its course.
No sooner are Cody and Cora acquainted than in pops another alliteratively named character, Betty Borcus (downtown favorite, Black-Eyed Susan). Betty, gets a big surprise when Ivy, (Deborah Auer), the Blue Heron's chanteuse who loves lightning and thunder ("I would put lightning and thunder in my contract if I could") sings a song called "Merry Widow of Terace Town" which is a ballad about Betty's own Roxie Hart saga.
Another eccentric to come on scene is Peter (Agosto Machado), a sociometric analyst in the research branch of the Department of the Interior whose trend tracking activities are currently focused on "tropicalization" which according to him puts the Blue Heron on the cutting edge of a cultural undercurrent surging across the country since. It seems that "tropical themes are popping up in numbers that are off every chart in the Bureau's history" which has the whole country apparently "trying to turn into Cancun." This and the tension of being in a high rise not only hit by lightning but possibly in the path of a more devastating disaster, a tornado, hints at serious concerns underlying all this —but not enough so to keep this from being a laugh a minute.
Of course, no satire like this would be complete without a gangster, better yet, two. And so we have an odd couple with homogenized American names — Scott Bennett (Tony Nunziata) for gangster #1 and Paul Gordon (John Costelloe) for #2 — names given them courtesy of the witness protection program. Unsurprisingly, gangster #1, the tough and dangerous looking one, turns out to be a rather unconventional romantic.
I suppose you could call La Vie Noir a musical when you consider that Ivy the chanteuse gets a second number and that there's a hilarious tango choreographed by Harry Mann. And, oh yes, there's an ensemble songfest of "Night and Day " that's intended to ensure that there is a day after night ("because nobody ever dies in a musical") and that's saved from making Frank Sinatra turn in his grave by Scott the gangster's guiding the singers to pick up the tempo.
This kind of comedy with music has been done before. In fact, I saw a much higher profile movie parody, Adrift in Macao, less than two weeks ago (review). However, Mr. Neu's text and lyrics are sharper and funnier, and he has the good sense to know when to end things, instead of overstaying his welcome. At $15 a ticket this is not only fun but a big bang for the buck recommendation.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide