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Steel Magnolias

27 Rue de Fleurus

This new musical about Alice B. Toklas and Gertude Stein is always amiable, but never fully satisfying.

By New York City
Barbara Rosenblat and Susan Haefner
in 27 Rue de Fleurus
(© Pavel Antonov)
Barbara Rosenblat and Susan Haefner
in 27 Rue de Fleurus
(© Pavel Antonov)
An extraordinary love, life, and literary legacy are distilled into a curious vaudeville in 27 Rue de Fleurus, Ted Sod and Lisa Koch's new musical now at Urban Stages, which imagines Alice B. Toklas (Cheryl Stern) in the afterlife as she attempts to make some sense of her 40-year relationship with Gertrude Stein (Barbara Rosenblat). The fact that the piece is a fanciful spin on the historical record is made evident as soon as a glamorous Toklas takes the stage, explaining that she looks not as she was in life, but as she always felt she appeared.

Toklas' recounting includes tales of Stein's infamous salon gatherings where the pair entertained the likes of Pablo Picasso (Sarah Chalfy) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Susan Haefner). Their stormy domestic relationship is also detailed -- which includes jealousies on both sides and Toklas' resentment that that she lives constantly in Stein's shadow as "the woman behind the woman."

It's a clever conceit, allowing Toklas to tell her side of the story, particularly since it was Stein who penned Toklas' "autobiography." But Sod's rules for how the story is told are constantly changing, giving the musical a cutesy, overly capricious quality. For instance, just after Stein berates Toklas for certain omissions, Toklas tells her partner that she has complete control over what Stein can remember in here. How does Stein know the omissions if Toklas is in control? When Stein exclaims "Your story lacks focus," we nod in agreement.

Similarly, the sprightly tunes from Koch are a hodgepodge of styles. Stein's proposal to Toklas, "Be My Wife," which sounds as if it might come from a show from Broadway's Golden Age, is preceded by "Place on the Wall" -- an introspective duet for the pair that draws upon pop traditions with a smattering of Sondheim. Sod and Koch's lyrics are equally scattershot. At times, they zing with cleverness and wit, and at others, they border on the banal. "Role Play," in which Toklas and Stein describe how they keep a spark in their sex life, though playful, lands with a thud.

Despite the unevenness of the material, Stern and Rosenblat deliver solid performances throughout, and though Rosenblat's vocals are more assured, the quirkiness of Stern's upper register wonderfully matches her portrayal of Toklas as a flighty creature tinged with anger.

Less successful are the performances from the three other members of the all-female ensemble. Chalfy, as both Picasso and a fantasy Jean Harlow, creates caricatures rather than characters. Haefner's work as Fitzgerald is equally broad, but her performance as May Bookstaver, one of Stein's other flames, is terrifically deliberate. Emily Zacharias is most successful in her roles. Her portrait of Stein's pompous and homophobic brother Leo stings and she renders publisher Sylvia Beach with flair. Even when saddled with an unfortunately dowdy costume (one of the few lapses in Carrie Robbins' otherwise superlative design), Zacharias gives a memorable turn as Toklas' first love, a farm girl from Seattle.

Director Frances Hill's production has a zest that matches the unbridled creativity of the creators, unfolding on a handsome scenic design from Roman Tatarowicz, who's created a surreal white salon with skewed walls that's backed by a series of overlapping frames into which Alex Koch's collage-like video is projected. It's the perfect canvas for this haphazard look into Toklas and Stein's world, one that's always amiable, but never fully satisfying.


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