Abe Burrows's book, streamlined for Encores! by David Lee (the running time is a mere two and a half hours), plays not as a story but as a series of settings and situations. We're in Paris, 1893, on the Left Bank. La Mome Pistache (Patti LuPone) is always having run-ins with the gendarmes over the lewd dances performed at her boîte. The newly appointed, self-righteous Judge Aristide (Michael Nouri) investigates the joint to see for himself and falls quickly under the spell of Pistache. What should happen next is that they should learn something from each other -- she to care for someone besides herself, he to stop being so judgmental -- but their relationship is sketched out in such inconsequential shorthand that the actors can do little more than strike attitudes, bickering and reconciling throughout the evening. This being an old-fashioned musical, and not in the positive sense, most of its scenes end with loud, thudding punchlines. The plot also involves a second couple, a perky dancer (Charlotte d'Amboise) and a terrible sculptor (Reg Rogers) living la vie bohème, but the thinness of these two characters makes the first couple look like they stepped out of a Chekhov play.
Do the Cole Porter songs save the show? Non. Some are attractive and some became standards -- "I Love Paris," "C'est Magnifique," "It's All Right with Me" -- but even the hits display this genius songwriter at less than his best. The score is heavy on list songs -- simple, repetitive ones -- and even when an honest ballad surfaces, it doesn't get under your skin (to paraphrase a prior Porter great). "I Am in Love" has the suave beguine beat associated with Porter, but what is "a stampede of love?" And would any disappointed lover really ponder, "Such conflicting questions ride around in my brain / Should I order cyanide or order champagne?"
What, then, kept the original Can-Can kicking for 892 performances? Personality, I'm guessing. Critics in 1953 weren't bowled over by the material, either; but there were so many fun, idiosyncratic people onstage doing such bizarre and/or energetic things in such a naughty French setting amidst lavish Jo Mielziner trappings that audiences forgave it. (An even slightly lascivious show must have felt like a breath of fresh air at the peak of the McCarthy era.) The original Pistache, Lilo, was authentically Gallic and fascinatingly odd, with a habit of adding "m"s to the end of every lyric line ("Try to remember, ma bellemmm"). In this respect, Encores! was canny in hiring LuPone, a genuine star with timing, magnetism, and diction nearly as strange as Lilo's. Sure, she masticates on her consonants; and you can't really believe that her heart would palpitate over Nouri, the Stick That Sings (he repeatedly sang ahead of the orchestra last night). But she's breezy, she's individual, and she warbles with a music-hall abandon that Piaf might have envied. If there were more of LuPone here, there'd be more of a show.
With so little at stake dramatically, there's plenty to enjoy on City Center's stage: Michael Kosarin's spirited conducting of Philip J. Lang's zippy old orchestrations, a well-drilled and sexy corps de ballet, Kenneth Posner's unobtrusive pastel lighting, and old pro Eli Wallach milking his every moment on stage as a randy judge. This being Can-Can, you know that sooner or later the dancers will shriek, run wildly about, and do splits and cartwheels as a fetching LuPone chews on one of Porter's zingier silly-list lyrics ("If a bass in the Saskatchewan can / Baby, you can can-can too"). But at no point during the proceedings will you care if Pistache is hauled back to jail or not, if Aristide will be able to balance his appetites for the officious and the libertine, or whether Claudine ends up with her sad-sack sculptor or the silver-tongued art critic (Paul Schoeffler) who tries to woo her away with a dull comic ballad. As a relic from the B-list of 1950s musicals, Can-Can just about gets by; but if Encores! means to convince us that it's worthy of a transfer to Broadway, like Chicago or Wonderful Town, it can't-can't.