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BWW REVIEWS: Encores! Offers a Rare Evening With IRMA LA DOUCE

Long before Les Miserables traveled the Paris to London to Broadway route, Alexandre Breffort (book and lyrics) and Marguerite Monnot's (music) frothy little entertainment, Irma la Douce blazed the same trail. Like its pop-op counterpart, this intimate, semi-seedy musical comedy was originally performed in French, and it was quite the hit among late-1950s Parisians.

Jennifer Bowles and Company (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Peter Brook had the book and lyrics adapted by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman for West End audiences and among them was David Merrick, who took that production to Broadway with its three original stars. Clive Revill and Keith Michell would be the most recognizable of its leads to today's Broadway fans, but the dynamic force that kept the show in Gotham for over 500 performances was its leading, and only, lady, Elizabeth Seal, in her sole Broadway musical performance.

Seal would win the 1961 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical over Julie Andrews in Camelot, Carol Channing in Show Girl and Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi. (Interesting side-note: That was the year Tammy Grimes in The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Chita Rivera in Bye, Bye, Birdie were both nominated in the Featured Actress category, despite their starring roles.)

Infamously, the film version of the musical, starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon, not only altered the plot a bit but eliminated the entire score and was released as a non-musical. Perhaps cinematic exposure to the sentimental ballad, "Our Language Of Love," the wildly catchy "Dis-Donc" (a multi-defined French expression) and the Piaf-like title song would have made the musical better known today, but as an interesting obscurity with a lively collection of songs, a sufficient amount of cleverness and some wonderfully atmospheric orchestrations (Andre Popp) Irma la Douce is the kind of charming curiosity that is perfect for concert treatment by Encores! of City Center.

With the plot set mostly in and around an underground bar frequented by prostitutes and pimps, the English translation incorporates key French words to pretty-up the atmosphere. Thus, as explained in the opening "Valse Milieu" (Waltz of the Underworld), a poule spends her days walking the streets to earn grisbi, which she gives to her mec.

Jennifer Bowles and Rob McClure
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

The titular Irma, naturally, has a heart of gold, and falls in love with a poor but noble law student named Nestor. He returns her affection and, although he's not entirely comfortable with her choice to financially support him, he agrees to the arrangement. But when Nestor becomes consumed with jealousy over Irma's clientele, he disguises himself as a wealthy gentleman who pays her a handsome sum daily (which she gives back to him as Nestor) for her exclusive favors.

Yes, one must navigate through the substantial holes in the plot, but as second-tier musical comedies go, Irma la Douce is quite enjoyable through to its first act curtain twist. The second act woes mostly extend from a lack of sufficient plot, resulting in unnecessary musical moments that, despite the charms of the words and music, drag the show on its heels to the final curtain.

Despite the book flaws, the title character is a showy, Tony-winning role, so it's a bit surprising to not see a well-known musical theatre performer claiming it for the Encores! one-week run. Instead, the spotlight falls on Jennifer Bowles, one of Broadway's chorus gypsies, taking time off from her present gig in the ensemble of Matilda. Bowles sings and acts like a pro and is especially engaging when she leads the boys in her dances, but unfortunately there is little in director John Doyle's production that pops out at the audience. While it should always be considered that Encores! productions are mounted and reviewed with very little rehearsal time, the problem appears to be that Doyle's production takes a whimsical farce and tones it down toward realism.

The usually very interesting Malcolm Gets, displays little flavor in his juicy role as the narrating barkeep who guides us through the ways of the French sex trade and the charismatic character man Stephen DeRosa seems misused in what should be a winning turn as a corrupt police inspector.

The performance that does pop out is that of Rob McClure, whose light-footed physical clowning and fine musical comedy vocals make the evening more about the hapless, lovesick Nestor than of the endearing Irma. But there is little chemistry displayed - romantic, comedic or otherwise - between the two leading players.

The main attraction is certainly the music. Accordionist William Schimmel is heavily featured in conductor Rob Berman's ten-piece orchestra, perched above the action. Composed by one of Edith Piaf's frequent collaborators and orchestrated by one of France's leading musical influences of the mid-20th Century, audiences at Irma la Douce are treated to a rare and succulent taste of 1950s Parisian authenticity.

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