In her show All I Want is One Night, part of the Brits Off Broadway season at 59e59 Theaters, Jessica Walker, a favorite at 59e59, shines once more. In the production running through 1 July, Walker poignantly re-imagines the turning points in the life of the French cabaret star and personality Suzy Solidor.
Walker wrote the dramatic backdrop and performs the songs Solidor sang. With the assistance of Joseph Atkins’ fine musical direction, and original and revival direction by Sarah Frankcom and the Company, and actors Rachel Austin and Alexandra Mathie, Walker presents an interesting reminiscence of Solidor.
The production opens with Solidor at the end of her life portraying herself as an admiral. But the setting, her dusty antique shop in Haut-de-Cagnes, France, creaks with the memories of a young woman. The paintings of a youthful, lovely Solidor grace the walls of the shop. Lindstrom (Alexandra Mathie), a painter, is working on Solidor’s portrait, her last. During their interactions with the maid Giselle (Rachel Austin), we learn about the other Solidor portraits that hang in the town museum.
Solidor sat for many famous painters. Many were intrigued by her open lifestyle and freedom of personality. Noted as one of the most painted women of her time, she stipulates that Lindstrom, like previous painters, must give her his painting after completion, promising to display it in her antique shop advertising the painter’s skills. In the past she had displayed her portraits in her Parisian cabaret, paying for them with various quid pro quos.
Showing the breadth of her celebrity, in her lap she holds a painting of herself by Man Ray. As the frail, elderly woman discusses earlier painters, the time shifts to her younger days. Through pertinent flashbacks, we see the many faces of this intriguing maverick cabaret singer who entertained Nazis at her Paris cafe during WWII.
We see vignettes of Solidor with the women who influenced her. And as she ages and gains celebrity, we understand that she in turn influenced younger women. She also had affairs with both men and women. In just over an hour, we get a picture of Solidor’s dynamic as an independent woman who “called her own shots.” Though arrested after the war for collaborating with the Nazis, she served her time and moved on.
From Walker’s portrayal and the songs she elects to sing, we gain an appreciation for this one-of-a-kind contemporary of Edith Piaf’s. Perhaps Solidor is not as talented as Piaf, whose songs Solidor adapts for herself. But painters rendered her over 200 times in oils and other mediums, something the Piaf estate cannot claim.
As we move forward to the height of Solidor’s career, Walker sings her cabaret songs with throaty exuberance. The second segment revolves around her life and loves at her club, La Vie Parisienne, in the 1930s. She begins with “Les Filles de St. Malo,” St. Malo being where she was born. Period songs follow, and she closes the Paris segment with the standard “Lili Marlene.”
Alexandra Mathie portrays painter Tamara de Lempicka; Suzy’s German collaborator Lieutenant Niebuhr; and in a later segment Bambi, a transgendered singer. Suzy’s other female lover, the baroness Daisy (Rachel Austin), eventually leaves her after their relationship falls apart. During vignettes among these characters sandwiched between songs, we note that Solidor flouted her lesbianism. However, she also discusses her love of an aviator who dies, with shades of Piaf’s own story.
As Suzy ages and transitions, Walker integrates various numbers to highlight the emotional ranges, the highs and lows, of Suzy’s life. She eventually moves to Haut-de-Cagnes where she held society gatherings and soirées and gave poetry readings. We see her alcoholism contributing to her loss of celebrity image, and her memory lapses.
Mathie evokes Suzy’s father in a poignant scene. Solidor’s mother, a maid, had a romance with a Baron who never gave Suzy his last name. Suzy created her own being, ethos, and new identity to confront the world and make a place in it, renaming herself. Yet in this scene we feel her longing to be appreciated and cared for by a father. Sadly, Suzy never really knew her father, who had died long ago. Thus, the scene is wishful believing, a lie to help her get to the next day through the fog of drink.
Toward the conclusion Solidor cannot distinguish present from past. As past and present meld into one reality, Solidor becomes easy prey for the painter, Lindstrom, and maid, Giselle. At the end, the play devolves into the sadness and despair that can easily happen to a celebrity who dissolves herself into oblivion.
Joseph Atkins does a tremendous job as accompanist on the piano and accordion, adding to Solidor’s shifting moods and tones. The music carries us from happier times to longing and depression.
Kudos go to the creative team, which also includes lighting designer Kate Ashton. Walker, Austin, and Mathie prove their mettle throughout in a difficult, sometimes hard-to-follow rendering of Solidor’s life and loves. In the interest of creativity and cleverness, clarity was sometimes sacrificed. For those not familiar with the life of Suzy Solidor, this would especially be a problem. What holds best are the songs mirroring the segments and transitions of her life. The character constructs, by contrast, are rather opaque.
However, overall, a portrait of Solidor as a mesmerizing and extraordinary woman of her time beautifully emerges.
All I Want is One Night runs with no intermission, set in cabaret style (always excellent) at 59E59 Theaters until 1 July. For fans of cabaret, Suzy Solidor, Jessica Walker, and/or the soulful Parisian music of the 1930s to 1950s, this production captivates. For tickets visit the website.