Even when the Cold War was at its iciest, one could depend on Broadway to provide some much-needed sizzle. Such is the case with the 1955 musical Silk Stockings, which Ian Marshall Fisher's Lost Musicals is presenting through October 3 at Florence Gould Hall - the show might be best known for its Cole Porter score, but is most distinguished by something else: its book.
For those whose familiarity with mid-50s Porter is limited to last year's Encores! production of the chronically creaky Can Can, this might come as a shock. After all, Porter, as one of the most prolific chroniclers of the lives and loves of the upper crust, generally liked things slightly lighter than international intrigue.
But the libretto for Silk Stockings, which was adapted by George S. Kaufman, Abe Burrows, and Leueen MacGrath from Melchoir Lengyel's novel Ninotchka, is a work of potently subversive political art. It interweaves so much social commentary with its barbed humor that at times it seems to be trying to take down the Soviet Union all by itself. Satire, after all, has always been one of the writer's most powerful weapons, and even when the subject is something like Communism - which is not, and never has been, a laughing matter - it still cuts sharper or deeper than anything else.
This libretto's numerous jabs about the plight of the proletariat, trying to find tiny instances of luxurious comfort in a rough-living world, and the oppressiveness of the Soviet regime in matters artistic, economic, and romantic help it register as so baldly patriotic, it's at times difficult to remember that almost all of it takes place in Paris. It's neutral ground of sorts, the perfect place for a story from the ever-popular genre of forbidden love.
This one is about American agent Steven Canfield (Daniel Gerroll), who falls for the chilly but beautiful Russian official Ninotchka (Valerie Cutko). She's come to France to investigate Canfield's business dealings with a prominent Russian composer, Peter Ilyitch Boroff (Mitchell Greenberg), who's suddenly none too eager to return to the Soviet Union. Ninotchka is initially severe, set in her ways, and dedicated to her Communist ideals, but soon comes to appreciative and even need the freedom to feel and act as she likes, without concern for appearances or her own personal safety.
That provides the show's most sure-footed romantic leaning: the love of freedom. While Ninotchka flourishes in a freer climate, the results aren't always positive - a major subplot revolves around Janice (Nina Hennessey, in full Mitzi Gaynor fizziness), a dim-witted, ex-swimming starlet who blithely corrupts Boroff's most cherished musical themes by using them in a musical-comedy biopic of Napoleon's wife, Josephine - but they're more than just the best way. They're the only way to true happiness. If only more messages in today's political theatre were as affirmative!
As for the score, aside from Janice's "Stereophonic Sound," which touts all that you really need to have a hit film, Porter's tunes are solid, if decidedly second-tier. His political work is amusing - "Too Bad," when Boroff learns he must stay in Paris, and "Red Blues" for an offbeat Moscow finale - but his love songs, whether about people ("Without Love," "All Of You," "As On Through The Seasons We Sail") or one of his most favorite subjects ("Paris Loves Lovers," most notable for Ninotchka's socialist interjections), aren't up to the undulating, smoky standards of his earlier, more distinguished work.
For better or worse, Fisher's staging is never flashy; it's subdued and appropriate, making nice use of the actors' script books and incorporating only limited choreography. This occasionally makes it difficult to get a firm grasp on the show's true entertainment impact; some sluggish pacing, particularly near the end of the nearly 90-minute first act, doesn't help. Nor does Gerroll, who's smarmily superb in his dialogue scenes but loses all confidence whenever it's time for him to sing. Cutko is appropriately stern and single-minded, but never satisfactorily melts; a trio of her Russian compatriots (Tom Mardirosian, Robert Ari, and Wally Dunn) are a great deal more fun.
Regardless, it's thrilling to be able to judge Silk Stockings on all of its own merits, something even Encores! and similar concert readings don't always allow. At the opening-night performance, Fisher made a charming pre-show speech in which he asserted his belief that the writers' work should be seen and heard in its entirety, with none of the cuts or changes that plague musical revivals, even of this scale, in New York. (It's a shame, then, that this production has only a solo piano, played by music director Lawrence Yurman, as accompaniment; experiencing the show otherwise intact, though, is an acceptable trade-off.)
Funnier still was Fisher's introduction of himself as a British director, who's come to our shores to explain to us how our musicals should work. If Silk Stockings is any indication of what he and Lost Musicals are capable of, I'd like to officially encourage him to come here as often as he likes, and stay as long as he likes - there are plenty of directors, British and American alike, who could stand to learn a great deal from the fidelity and care he displays here. What could Fisher do with a first-rank title? I don't know, but I hope he gives us the opportunity to find out.