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Irma La Douce

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Irma La Douce
Jennifer Bowles and Rob McClure
Photo by Joan Marcus

If Encores! was going to now and forever abandon its former tagline — one might even say mission statement — of “Great American Musicals in Concert,” it couldn’t have picked a more flamboyantly flagrant way to do so than by producing Irma La Douce.

This raucously Gallic curiosity by Alexandre Breffort (original book and lyrics, adapted into English by Julian More, David Heneker, and Monty Norman) and Marguerite Monnot (music) must rank as, if not the most laid-back Encores! concert to date, then certainly the weirdest. As directed by John Doyle with his typical studious indifference and choreographed by an oddly restrained Chase Brock, this mounting is one that revels in its chapeau-to-chaussure French-ness while doing everything possible to avoid the sauce, spice, and whimsy that usually implies.

And it works as far as it goes, provided you’re expecting it to not go very far and deliver an across-the-pond style of musical comedy in which the laughs are airier, even theoretical, and insouciant charm is more the goal. The titular lady of the evening, played with the gentle bite of room temperature wine by Jennifer Bowles, is in love with two men: Nestor, a law student, and Oscar, a rich... um... benefactor who’s willing to pay her 10,000 francs every day to be faithful to him. And, oh yes, it just so happens that the two are one and the same, and played by a very busy Rob McClure.

The rest of the plot — and there’s scarcely more — extends from there. It involves Nestor donning and doffing a funny beard, funny glasses, and funny accent to fool Irma, “murdering” Oscar by discarding his signature briefcase in the nearest river, and then “paying” for his “crime.” But there’s so little here to dwell on that by the time the penguin ballet waddles around in the second act (and no, I’m not joking) you may wonder whether you’re actually supposed to care about any of this at all.

That’s a question I can’t answer for you; all I can say is that I didn’t. Part of this I attribute to Doyle’s cool, broad staging that doesn’t allow Bowles or McClure room to display much of their natural warmth (a quality of which Doyle is rarely fond). But the right stars in the right roles can transcend such obstacles, though these didn’t. McClure came closest, working feverishly hard to distinguish the two men from one another, and stumbling only when physical indicating substitutes for deeper character work (which becomes especially true near the end of the first act). His earnest goofy manner, however, and unaffected singing voice makes him a solid leading man for this kind of unconventional character.

Bowles is likable in her own right, and certainly bright of personality and talent, though her singing comes across as more tentative than her dancing. But she lacks the energy or verve that might translate into the electrifying turn Irma needs. The role’s originator, English actress Elizabeth Seal, beat out Julie Andrews, Carol Channing, and Nancy Walker for a 1961 Tony, suggesting she possessed a dynamism that Bowles, for her obvious gifts, does not. It’s not quite clear, alas, why “two” men are fighting over her.

Granted, you’re not supposed to think too much about that or anything else — this is, at its best, a silly, vaguely adult entertainment that’s as free of pretensions as it is inspiration. So though the other performers, who include an overcast-but-enjoying-himself Malcom Gets as a barman-narrator, Stephen DeRosa as a graft-loving police inspector, and Chris Sullivan as an unusually approachable crime boss, lighten things up a bit, there’s only so much they can or need to do. You either buy into what the show is selling or you don’t — there’s not really any middle ground.

That goes for the score, too, which is an aromatic mélange of sleepy French sounds (Rob Berman and a cozy slice of the Encores! orchestra bounce nicely through Andre Popp’s accordion-heavy orchestrations) that are pleasing in the moment, but fade into the mist not long after. “Our Language of Love” is the closest to a tangible romantic song and the I’m-in-love “Dis-Donc” the closest to a classic showstopper, but these and the others sprinkle on the zest without ever daring to douse. Guys and Dolls or Sweet Charity this is not.

It’s not exactly trying to be, of course, but you forever sense that it’s longing to be more than it is — an aspiration it can’t achieve today, and probably did upon its 1960 Broadway premiere probably because it was different. The one knock-‘em-dead element of Irma La Douce at Encores! is, oddly, the set: John Lee Beatty’s farewell to the franchise is his most elaborate ever, forgoing his trademark stark visuals for a comfortably cluttered view of a Milieu bar that seems to be real and fantasy Paris all at once. It’s a design that knows what it is and what it wants for a show and production that, at least by 2014 standards, all too seldom do.


Irma La Douce
Through May 11
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 W 55th Street between 6th & 7th
Tickets and performance schedule at nycitycenter.org