Divertimento

Encores’ current offering, Irma La Douce, offered me the opportunity to see an old musical I knew virtually nothing about. So, there’s fun in discovery. And I’m glad to gain familiarity with a hit show from the 60s.

But sometimes you open up a package and inside is a musty pair of socks. Irma La Douce is a little-known oddity that deserves obscurity. It started life as a hit in Paris, then underwent a metamorphosis to make it fit for Brits; finally, David Merrick brought it over here. The master producer of the second half of the twentieth century, Merrick had a knack for figuring out what bits of European culture the Broadway crowd might flock to. Irma La Douce presents an oh-so-French café in Pigalle and we’re supposed to be fascinated by the land of l’amour and how things are different there.

Sound familiar? I suppose time and too many Paris-set shows have made the mise-en-scène overly familiar in the past half-century. But one looks to Irma La Douce for a little more authenticity, since it’s actually created by French writers Alexandre Breffort and Marguerite Monnot; adapted and translated by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. But all we get are clichés like “A lamppost in the rain.” Wow: Paris. Too bad my town doesn’t have anything like that. On comes a prostitute from Central Casting; she meets a naïve young man and they instantly fall in love. Now, love-at-first-sight certainly occurs in many a musical; here, I think we’re meant to see this trope as amusing. The show seems to be saying “This sort of thing happens in Paris all the time: helluva town, no?” And I can get with that, for a while, since the show is soufflé-light and peppered with a good amount of punch lines. But what I can’t do – notably during the big love song, called Our Language of Love – is feel anything.

No need to speak, no need to sing,
When just a glance means everything,
Not a word need be spoken,
In our language of love.

I’ll touch your cheek, you’ll hold my hand,
And only we will understand,
That the silence is broken,
By our language of love.

It’s clear to you, it’s clear to me,
This precious moment had to be,
Other moments outclassing,
Guardian angels are passing.

That’s crummy lyric-writing, folks. (I tend to blame the three – count ‘em: three – British translators.) This couple might be any couple. I learn nothing about them when I hear this song. It’s pleasant; it passes by.

Like many of the Eurotrash scores in the more-recent Eurotrash era, a handful of themes are repeated ad infinitum, repurposed for utterly different situations, as if composer Monnot couldn’t be bothered to come up with more than a half dozen tunes. The trouble with Irma La Douce that might be most instructive to us all has to do with Irma La Douce, the song. Taken out of context, it’s plenty powerful, the sort of pained threnody Piaf might sing, and Monnot previously penned a passel of Piaf hits. (O.K., I’ll give my P key a rest now.) When it comes up in the middle of Act Two, though, we’re not prepared to invest in Irma’s feelings because the show has been telling us, from the very beginning, not to take anything seriously. And, speaking of the very beginning, the opening number used the exact same tune.

Something else, not in the writing, gave me déjà vu. Three years ago, an Encores staging featured Rob McClure as a young man in love, forced by farcical circumstances to dress up as someone else. That show – also rarely done anymore – was Where’s Charley?, based on the old comedy, Charley’s Aunt, with a score by Frank Loesser. McClure’s impressive once again, but back then he was a total unknown to me, now he’s a rising star with a Tony nomination. But Loesser’s songs are superbly crafted to give you a rooting interest in all the romance enmeshed in cross-dressing silliness. Irma La Douce is droll and no more.

It is, I should note, highly unlikely that Breffot and Monnot, writing in France for a French audience, had any awareness of Where’s Charley? The chain of influence is endlessly fascinating to me: Artists’ output is inevitably shaped by things they’ve seen, even if it’s to say “I’m going to avoid doing that.” Irma La Douce may well have seemed fresh when it first came out (I’ve no way of knowing). But this week, at City Center, I suggest you see it simply to avoid doing anything like it.

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