The City Center Encores series has become one of the highlights of the New York theatre season. I really regret missing their last offering -- THE MOST HAPPY FELLA -- but catch their shows when I can. Their production of Rodgers and Hart's ON YOUR TOES last year was the best revival of that work I have seen. Ditto GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES the year before.
I don't know what possessed Jack Viertel and his colleagues this time around. IRMA LA DOUCE is a small, forgettable British import of a French musical that had a respectable run of a year in New York in 1960. The score is slight -- a couple of pleasant ballads repeated endlessly and some mediocre patter songs -- tied to an even slighter book. The show was much more intimate than the typical Broadway musical in 1960. Back then I guess a musical about a whore who enjoyed her work was considered delightfully risqué. Today it's a bit creepy and the plot about a young man who plays two men to keep his beloved "poule" happy is definitely creaky. My sense is that the producers wanted a cheap show -- a cast of eleven, no chorus and a ten piece band. They only proved that IRMA LA DOUCE is too intimate for the massive City Center and not worth reviving.
I wish I could say that the performances made the evening worthwhile. Jennifer Bowles as Irma and Rob McClure as her boyfriend exuded absolutely no sexual chemistry in a show that depends on a powerful sexual attraction. They were typical of so many musical theatre performers these days -- competent, but without distinct personalities. I didn't see the original IRMA LA DOUCE (Elizabeth Seal played the title role), but I could imagine a quirky star like Gwen Verdon making something of the role. The boyfriend has to be more than sweet -- he has also to be sexy. McClure worked hard, but he was miscast. Though John Doyle is credited with direction, I saw no sign of direction of the two leading actors. Staging, yes, but no direction. I know these Encores productions have very short rehearsal time, but Doyle could have spent a little time getting his leads to act like they were the least bit interested in each other. The other men playing various Parisian low-lifes gave the show its only spark. The small band sounded good as it always does in Encores productions.
Not a great night for City Center Encores.
IRMA LA DOUCE. New York City Center. May 9, 2014.