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Can-Can

The Pasadena Playhouse offers a first-rate and somewhat rewritten version of Cole Porter's 1955 musical set in Paris.

By Los Angeles
Michelle Duffy and Kevin Earley in Can-Can
(© Craig Schwartz)
Michelle Duffy and Kevin Earley in Can-Can
(© Craig Schwartz)
The Pasadena Playhouse's revival of Cole Porter's Can-Can gives a swift kick in the can-can of local theater with its exhilarating production. The new book by Joel Fields and director David Lee enhances the problematic main relationship between café owner La Môme Pistache (Michelle Duffy) and straitlaced judge Aristide (Kevin Earley) by giving it a back-story. And no one can quibble about the hit parade of Cole Porter tunes that brighten this tale set in late 19th-century Paris.

Pistache runs Bal du Paradis, a tawdry dance cafe specializing in the scintillating Can-Can dance, deviant in the law's eyes because the dancers remove their petticoats. Thanks to a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" agreement with police and judges, however, the club continues despite its illegality -- until Aristide condemns the practices and sets to close it. His attempt at taking the high ground is crushed, however, when he discovers it is run by Pistache, who, in this version, turns out to be his childhood girlfriend. Pistache uses her wiles to compromise the judge, but quickly discovers she still loves him too.

In a secondary story, dancer Claudine (Yvette Tucker) wants to join the Can-Can line to the chagrin of her freeloading sculptor boyfriend Boris (Amir Talai). When a sleazy art critic (David Engel) takes a liking to the burgeoning dancer, Boris loans out her girlfriend in exchange for a positive review.

Lee, who worked on the television show Cheers with James Burrows, son of the show's original librettist Abe Burrows, has been interested in reviving the show for many years and worked closely with him on the rewritten book. Here, the performers strip away not just their undergarments, but also the fourth wall. They joke with the audience, and in the end, beg them for rhymes to write a new verse to the title song in a musical Mad Lib that proves that no protégé of Cole Porter was sitting in the audience.

On the other hand, Lee utilizes only the songs written specifically for the 1955 Broadway musical, such as "Can-Can," "C'est Magnifique" and "I Love Paris" -- although he did add a song dropped from the original production: "Who Said Gay Paree?" What he doesn't do is interpolate other songs from the Porter catalogue, as happened in the misbegotten film version of Can-Can.

Even with the changes, the new production remains in the confines of classic Golden Age musicals, with 14 or so scene changes, an A and B story, and convenient happy endings. On the other hand, the show still hints at misogyny with men feeding off working women, others pimping their girlfriends out, and one man deciding that the women's powerful sexuality is a punishable offense.

The cast is exquisite, particularly Duffy, whose comic timing is best represented with great asides to the audience, but who also knows how to belt out a Porter classic tune. She also has palpable chemistry with Earley, a charismatic actor in his element with such songs as "I Am in Love." As the boorish comic relief, Engel proves that his fencing skills are a dance of its own.

The dancers (including the male waiters who kick up their legs and do splits almost as effortlessly as their female counterpoints) pump enthusiasm into the show with their erotic, intricate, and rousing moves. "Querrelle" justifiably brings down the house, and choreographer Patti Colombo stages the comical "Never Be An Artist" as one would for the Marx Brothers.

The costumes by Randy Gardell consistently dazzle the audience. Pistache is gowned in some lovely dresses, particularly a slinky black velvet number accessorized with lace gloves; for "Live and Let Live," she sports a red, white, and blue sequined costume that makes her resemble a patriotic majorette.

Even though the show moves from location to location, set designer Roy Christopher moves in and out of the courthouse, dressing rooms, and the café with ease. Many lasting giggles come from Boris' absurd sculptures, particularly the "MaidMer," which, despite the nasty words of the critic character, is quite provocative.

Can-Can represents the best of local acting and slick production values, combined with an undervalued Cole Porter score. It all adds up to a first-rate Pasadena Playhouse offering that should be on your "must-must" list.


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