If songs were chase scenes, the Pasadena Playhouse's revival of Can-Can would be the Live Free or Die Hard of musicals. It's got enough impressive dance numbers and delightful songs to really satisfy, but the plot doesn't hold up under any sort of scrutiny, and, although it will likely make a lot of money, it isn't exactly going to please the art house crowd.
This "revisal" - we are told that the book here is "about eighty percent new" - follows our heroine, Pistache, whose dance hall is constantly at risk of violating the 1893 morals laws of Paris, as the dancers regularly perform the "special" can-can. (Say "special" the way one might request a "special" massage at certain establishments.) After the first scene, which establishes Can-Can as a fun, flirty, winkingly-naughty-but-really-quite-nice show (and Pistache as the same sort of character), Pistache's dancers are hauled off to court.
Don't think about this. Don't ask yourself, "why were they arrested if they weren't even doing the forbidden dance?" (Indeed, they later do much more of the same under the approving eye of the law.) Don't ask yourself, "who arrested them if the arresting officers themselves refuse to testify against them?" The only answer to these questions is that they were arrested in order to bring Pistache's club to the attention of Aristide, a new young judge who is determined to investigate the goings-on at the Bal du Paradis.
Standard musical comedy mistaken identity business follows. When Aristide arrives at the club, he is mistaken for Hilare, an influential critic who has come to see the "special" can-can. The mistake is discovered before the joke starts to drag - because, in a somewhat unexpected twist, Pistache and Aristide recognize each other. Years ago, they'd been in love.
Michelle Duffy's Pistache and Kevin Earley's Aristide do seem to belong together. Both Duffy and Earley can easily take command of a stage, and both have moments to get lost in beautiful Cole Porter tunes, and take us right along with them. More than that, the show's book makes them both smarter than the average cardboard character. Pistache is still bitter that she had been tossed aside by Aristide's mother for being a commoner, but when Pistache realizes that she needs Aristide's approval to keep her club open, she immediately drops her dress strap off her shoulder and turns on the charm. Aristide, for his part, is not going to fall for such an obvious ploy - but, at the same time, he's probably remaining seated for a really good reason. Duffy and Earley both convey conflicted emotions, and there's a brief shining moment when you actually believe this revised book is going to turn out to be something special.
Alas, it doesn't pan out. Given that the song order in the program doesn't exactly match the song order on the stage (and, in fact, promises a "reprise" before a song is sung for the first time), it's clear that the show's revisers, Joel Fields and David Lee, were still rearranging after the program went to press, and they still don't have it right. In the second act, there are two songs and an interminable book scene between when Aristide confesses his love for Pistache and when she joyously sings "I Love Paris," by which time you've nearly forgotten what she has to be so happy about. Indeed, the second act gives an awful lot of stage time to second-banana couple Boris and Claudine, starving artist and wannabe can-can dancer respectively. Amir Talai's Boris is all about comic relief and Yvette Tucker's Claudine is, in fact, quite the dancer. The problem is that these folks weren't introduced as major players early in the show, and you might wonder how Boris has somehow managed to become the protagonist for most of act two. And the fact that the dialogue, which for the most part is written in the common vernacular, gives Aristide an awkward scene beginning with "What am I to do?" (does anyone ever actually say that aloud?) is another misstep.
But the book is not the reason you go to see a "popcorn" musical like Can-Can. You go to watch an ensemble of dancers build the (impressively lengthy) title number to an absolute fever pitch, courtesy of Patti Colombo's choreography. You go for the climactic sword fight, which, thanks to the work of fight coordinator Tim Weske, is equally satisfying in duration and flair. You go to listen to the effortless wit of Cole Porter's lyrics. You go to hear the oft-remarkable Kevin Earley risk blowing out a mic on "I am in Love." You go to enjoy the machinations of David Engel as the smooth villain Hilare, whom you know is going to get what's coming to him in the end, but that doesn't take the fun out of the journey. So what if the can-can dancers are wearing altogether too much make-up, and way too much stage time is given over to the entertainment stylings of a fartiste? It's just good old cotton-candy fun.
Can-Can continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through August 8, 2007. For tickets and information, see www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Pasadena Playhouse - Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Brian Colburn, Managing Director; Tom Ware, Producing Director -- proudly presents Can-Can. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter; Book by Abe Burrows; Revised by Joel Fields & David Lee. Scenic Design Roy Christopher; Costume Design Randy Gardell; Lighting Design Michael Gilliam; Sound Design Francois Bergeron; Casting Michael Donovan, C.S.A.; Video Design Austin Switser; Fight Coordinator Tim Weske; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Assistant Stage Manager Lea Chazin. Arrangements, Orchestrations and Musical Direction by Steve Orich; Choreographed by Patti Colombo; Directed by David Lee.