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Theater Review: Can-Can at the Pasadena Playhouse

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What was unacceptable behavior in the 1890s and acceptable dramaturgy in the 1950s may be tame and creaky now, but an updated book and superior lead performances have given David Lee’s lively Pasadena Playhouse staging of Cole Porter’s Can-Can (through August 5) enough engaging immediacy to high-kick it into 21st century respectability.

Lee and co-reviser Joel Fields may not have goosed Abe Burrows' script up to the level of the rest of the production, but that doesn't stop this Can-Can from providing a thoroughly entertaining evening, thanks to a break-out lead performance, a cast album-worthy cast, and a kind of frolicsome fourth-wall penetration rooted equally in improv and burlesque. It’s such an integrated affair that rather than being relied upon, the show’s musical tent poles – standards like "I Love Paris", "It’s All Right with Me", and "C’est Magnifique" – flow in as bonuses.

The laurels must first be laid before Mr. Lee, who has opted out of the dance halls of Mendes’ Cabaret or Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and settled into a clean, well-lighted environment where fairly wholesome girls only occasionally offer a glimpse of more than stocking. From Roy Christopher’s colored-pencil postcard set, which pops period character cutouts into the boxes and pit and offers scene titles projected onto a cartoon drop, to Randy Gardell’s beautiful costumes, Michael Gilliam’s rich lighting and Francois Bergeron’s crisp sound design, Mr. Lee brings the atmosphere of Offenbach’s underworld above ground.

From conductor Steve Orich’s opening caller-beware warning, to the intermission word-gathering for a show-specific alteration to the finale, there are lots of opportunities for the audience to be drawn into the show. Michelle Duffy emerges as the show’s star, thanks to joint ownership by her and her character of, respectively, the show and the showplace within it. She immediately sets the evening's tone with a teasing welcome flush with personality and showbiz chops. It’s a front-rank star-turn, matched by the thrilling vocals of Kevin Earley as her love interest and great support from a suave David Engel and an innocent Yvette Tucker.

The story, a device so pat that only a production this sparkling could stifle our groaning, involves Pistache (Duffy), a single woman who owns the Bal du Paradis nightclub. While it seems a pretty healthy establishment, it actually is in danger of being shut down by the local magistrate because of its reliance on the can-can. This dance is characterized by acrobatic individual work – all beautifully executed here under Patti Colombo’s choreography – and the famous finale. The dancers form a line, hike their skirts, and high-kick their frilly petticoats and panties into a blur that resembles a row of whirling white chrysanthemums, their black-stockinged legs waving like bee-hungry stamina.

Hilàre (Engel) is a powerful, pan-discipline-ravaging critic who (despite, or perhaps because of, some late-disclosed problems engorging) uses his influence to gain interest in the Bal du Paradis — and to leverage interest from its owner and newest dancer, Claudine (Tucker). Meanwhile, the most vocal judge advocating the closure of the club is Aristide (Earley), who just happens to be the only man Pistache really loved, yet whom she never knew was nearby. When they reunite, Pistache invites him back to her office and hints she may still carry a torch. Aristide quickly extinguishes it, but later confesses second thoughts on turning her down. She promptly admits her own change of heart. The tables will turn again, and again, never for any believable reason, until both allow that they match, and can light up simultaneously.

A side story about Claudine’s boyfriend, a Bulgarian sculptor named Boris (Amir Talai) and his bohemian friends leads to the only tiresome parts of the show. Talai, whose stage experience runs from the Groundlings to the Vegas Queen tribute, sings well but doesn't have the deftness for a very tricky role.

Can-Can ran for nearly 900 performances in its 1953 premiere and was updated by Burrows himself for the 1981 revival. The tolerance of the times had changed and the remounting ran only five performances. While Fields and Lee have given some back story to the teeter-totter romance between Pistache and Aristide, it remains unbelievable. Some of the fault may rest with Duffy and Earley, who despite the enormous gifts they bring, need to wriggle some more subtext into their scenes together. Right now their back and forth has all the intrigue of a game of Capture the Flag.

While Duffy and Earley fail to make the romance plot work through dialogue and scene work, their curtain-heralding smacker could vie for MTV's Best Stage Kiss (if MTV were aware the theater existed).

And, someone deserves some extra credit for making the production’s mics disappear. Having just seen a musical in which virtually all cast members seemed to have an Indian pendant hanging in the middle of their foreheads, this is an achievement. Whether it’s Lee, Gardell, Bergeron or some nameless tech, they should tape this for an instructional video on what musicals can look like.

The play justifies itself by promising to reveal the derivation of the French phrase 'my little cabbage.' When the explanation arrives, it has only the slightest connection with anything. But, like so many other plot points, it is quickly forgiven in the whir of a show that translates to a lot of fun for audiences, and will surely mean a lot of cabbage for the Playhouse.

CREDITS music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Abe Burrows, revised by Joel Fields and David Lee, choreography by Patti Colombo, arrangements, orchestrations, musical direction by Steve Orich, directed by Mr. Lee WITH Michelle Duffy, Kevin Earley, David Engel, Amir Talai, Yvette Tucker, Jeffrey Landman, Justin Robertson, Robert Yacko, and Shell Bauman, Andrea Beasom, Bonnie Bentley, Robert Alan Clink, Seth Hampton, Alaine Kashian, Jeanine Meyers, Alison Mixon, Justin Roller, Joe Schenck, Jonathan Sharp, Leslie Stevens, Rocklin Thompson, Rebecca Whitehurst PRODUCTION Roy Christopher, sets; Randy Gardell, costumes; Michael Gilliam, lights; Francois Bergeron, sound; Tim Weske, fights; Jill Gold/Lea Chazin, stage management Funding support – Sheila Grether-Marion and Mark Marion, NEA’s “American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius”

Pasadena Playhouse • June 29-August 5 (opened, reviewed July 6)

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