Review: WOMAN OF THE YEAR at Théâtre Firmin Gémier

Finally, this Kander and Ebb masterpiece plays in France

By: Feb. 18, 2024
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Despite being the fourth longest running Kander and Ebb musical on Broadway, after Chicago, Cabaret, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, Woman of the Year has never been properly revived and has never crossed the pond, very unusual for a big Broadway musical that would run for 770 performances and win for major Tonys. The reason is that was written as a star vehicle for Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall, trying to duplicate her successful first venture into the Broadway musical world with Applause (based on the movie All About Eve) in 1970, which won Tonys for Best Musical and Best Actress, before she brought it to London and even to TV.Review: WOMAN OF THE YEAR at Théâtre Firmin Gémier  

Both shows were actually ahead of their times, as they came before the era of big movie exploitation on Broadway stages, the first also having one of the first openly gay characters and the second using technology such as video projection, never seen before on Broadway. Both had strong scores in the pure golden age tradition, although Charles Strouse did venture into disco in Applause, some shades of which can be found in the orchestrations of “One of the Girls”, the biggest production number of Kander and Ebb’s rich are versatile Woman of the Year songbook.Review: WOMAN OF THE YEAR at Théâtre Firmin Gémier  

Peter Stone’s book, based on the 1942 Katharine Hepburn movie, was also modern in the way that it was centered on a woman making career for herself in a male dominated industry (and world), but it contains so many references to its time, 1981, that it would need to be seriously updated for a proper revival. Lauren Bacall brought a huge dose of chic, humor, and energy to the lead role of Tess Harding, a universally acclaimed television star, whose marriage to Sam, a press cartoonist, struggles to survive under the shadows cast by her great fame. Raquel Welch successfully took over the role, but sadly Debbie Reynolds, probably miscast, closed the show before it toured and was adapted in Argentina and in Mexico.

In this first ever production in France, spoken and sung in French, at the Théâtre Firmin Gémier in Paris, Ludmilla Dabo also does justice to the role of Tess, considering that the score was tailor-made for the husky alto of Bacall and not for such a strong voice as Dabo’s. Dabo’s most notable previous roles were Nina Simone in Portrait de Ludmilla en Nina Simone—written and directed by David Lescot, a performance lauded for its powerful and deep sensuality—and Georgia in Une femme se déplace, and her talent, earning her Best Actress from the prestigious Syndicat de la Critique in 2020, extends beyond acting and singing to writing and directing. Jacques Verzier—who in recent years has had leading roles in Cabaret, Kiss Me Kate, Of Thee I Sing, Sugar, Panique à bord, Titanic, and Lady in the Dark— in the role of Sam, gets the show’s only standard, the beautiful ballad, “Sometime A Day Goes By”.  

In multiple roles, Dalia Constantin (Bon baisers de Broadway, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game), one of the best and most versatile talents for musical theater in France, gets the show-stopping, tongue-in-cheek duet “The Grass is Always Greener” with Dabo. Quentin Gibelin, also in multiple parts, stands out as the hilarious Russia-defecting ballet dancer (no doubt modeled after Mikhail Baryshnikov), played on Broadway by George de la Peña, star of Herbert Ross’s great movie Nijinsky

The four-piece band—Sébastien Jaudon (piano), Arthur Verdet (electric keyboards), Jérémy Daillet (drums), and Luc Perret (trumpet and bugle)—all play supporting parts to good effect, placing this production into the actor-musician trend.  

Though we miss the big production numbers of the original Broadway production, Jean Lacornerie and his choreographer Raphël Cottin, did a fine job in transporting us once again to the golden age of Broadway musicals, bringing us an intimate version of a rarely seen gem for lovers of the genre, as well as for the general public, for whom Kander and Ebb mostly means Cabaret, Chicago, and the title song from New York, New York; even more so for Bells are Ringing and The Pajama Game, which were all around better shows, but we must be grateful to Lacornerie for his bold and adventurous choices. 

Woman of the Year is next to play at Saint-Nazaire on March 19th and 20th, and a live highlight concert was broadcast was done as part of Laurent Valière’s 42ème rue weekly broadcast, which you can listen to here.