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The DanceView Times, New York edition

A Disappointing Encore

Music and lyrics by Cole Porter; book by Abe Burrows
City Center Encores!
City Center
New York, NY
February 12, 2004

by Susan Reiter
copyright 2004 by Susan Reiter
published 16 February 2004

When Can-Can opened on Broadway in 1953, most of the attention and praise went to Gwen Verdon, in her first substantial Broadway role. Playing a laundress-by-day, can-can dancer by night named Claudine, she was the show's second female lead, with top billing going to a French actress named Lilo. But reviews suggest that Michael Kidd's choreography (for three substantial dance numbers) and Verdon's dancing were its most memorable and bankable assets. "She is the dance discovery of the season," proclaimed Walter Kerr, while another reviewer noted that "the crowd's increasing delight with Miss Verdon was exciting to feel."

When the invaluable City Center Encores season presented its semi-staged production of Can-Can, all three dance numbers (plus the rousing sung-and-danced finale to the title song) were included, but the balance was tipped in favor of the show's non-dancing diva—Patti LuPone in Lilo's original role of La Mome Pistache, the tough, brassy, independent owner of a Montmartre nightspot. Charlotte D'Amboise seemed an ideal choice for Claudine, having previously taken on other Verdon roles (in Damn Yankees and Chicago) with great panache, but although she brought a delightful carefree blowsiness to the character, her dancing, while robustly energetic, lacked the je-ne-sais-quoi to make her character the magnetic figure that Verdon created.

Former New York City Ballet principal dancer Melinda Roy was the choreographer given the daunting task of creating these substantial ensemble numbers within a hectic ten-day rehearsal period, and within the space limitations of a staging that places a 30-piece orchestra on the stage, with the performers limited mainly to a downstage area. Roy made her big move into musical theater as choreographer of last season's leaden and simplistic Urban Cowboy. She had moved into the area of country-western dance, forming a group that performs at parties and events, so that show's milieu made her a natural choice. She injected occasional life into the inane and predictable proceedings, but the dancing was heavy on good-natured butt-swinging and slightly cheesy raunchiness.

She did well by the rousing, boisterous group dances that feature Claudine and the ensemble. The "Quadrille," early in the show, gives a taste of what goes on at Le Bal du Paradis, Pistache's café, that has the authorities in such a lather that the police from time to time have rounded up the dancing girls and hauled them off to court. Their skirts flying, the women cavort with the men, with two of them sometimes being held by one guy. You get a sense of rowdy mayhem just this side of chaos, with everyone just having a damned good time.

The closing Can-Can featured the predictable high kicks, circle formations with legs jutting outward, derrieres on display and big splits. It is the only dance number in the show that has a song as its lead-in; the others stand alone. It helps that Can-Can is top-drawer Porter, its lyrics full of wit and naughtiness, its rhythms infectious and suitably Gallic—a real celebration of devil-may-care joie de vivre. LuPone, who mined all the earthiness, sensuality and occasional melancholy in her role, connects strongly to Porter—no secret to anyone who saw her terrific performance in the 1987 revival of Anything Goes. She sings this song with great gusto and sly suggestiveness, and when the dancers take over, eventually forming a swirling wheel around her, the show ends on a perfect high note.

Two other numbers that helped make this such a star-making role for Verdon did not come across with the same impact on this occasion. For some reason, a Garden of Eden ballet is staged at the Bal du Paradis, complete with the snake embodied by a slinky dancer in a black bikini and can-can boots. The 1890s are left behind as the style veers towards contemporary bland modern dance. There are a few cute touches as a mini-parade of birds and other creatures spring and flutter through, but D'Amboise as Eve and Robert Wersinger (also formerly with NYCB, and more recently in Contact) make little impact. D'Amboise's cropped beige top and short skirt was presumably meant to evoke nudity (the dancers portraying animals were in leotards), but she looked much less risqué than Verdon does in a photo from 1953 that has her in what looks like lacy underwear.

D'Amboise and Wersinger were the central couple in the Apache dance, which also veered completely away from the period setting into something more sultry. D'Amboise, in a simple but sexy black outfit, provided the necessary heat as she vamped amid the male ensemble.

This was not one of those Encores productions that people will be talking about for years to come, although they will remember LuPone's stellar turn. Ten years ago she scored a similar triumph in the Encores production of Pal Joey. Since no suitable full-fledged Broadway musicals seem to be around for her right now, thank goodness she has this setting in which she can occasionally shine.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 7
February 16, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on January 11, 2004