My abject apologies, dear reader, for my prolonged absence from the blogosphere. The new semester at the Boston Conservatory has started up with a vengeance, and I've been like the magician in the Frosty cartoon: busy, busy, busy.
As the Mufti program points out, Coco was "suggested by incidents from the life of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel." The original Broadway production of Coco has long been a guilty obsession of mine, partly because it was the only Broadway musical that the glorious Katharine Hepburn ever performed in. Yes, Katherine Hepburn did a musical. And, no, she can't really sing. But that doesn't matter. As Rex Harrison demonstrated in My Fair Lady and Richard Burton confirmed in Camelot, actors don't necessarily need to be strong singers to give convincing and affecting performances in musicals.
Plus you have that score by André Previn, set to lyrics by the occasionally great Alan Jay Lerner. Sure, it's no My Fair Lady, but it's full of its own share of wonders and fascinations. Previn's music is a lot more tuneful than people give it credit for, and Lerner's lyrics are sometimes clever, sometimes heartfelt, and sometimes painfully forced. My particular favorite in the clever department comes from "The World Belongs to the Young," and has Coco Chanel declaring "I want Paree to wake and see/without me there's a vacancy." Lerner also grinds out some genuine groaners. In "The Money Rings Out Like Freedom," Coco relates an anecdote regarding her invention of slacks for women, and in the process is forced to sing: "Soon all the sisters and the cousins and the aunts/Were calling we The Pirate of Men's Pants." (Get it? Gilbert & Sullivan? "Poor Wandering One" and all that?)
Well, despite my abiding love for the cast recording, Coco wasn't holding may attention in its Mufti presentation. When Hepburn left Coco after some nine months, the producers brought in French actress Danielle Darrieux to replace her. The show only lasted two more months. The reason: it's not very good. The score has its individual charms, but on the whole Coco really doesn't work, at least not without La Hepburn and Michael Bennett's original staging, which apparently was dazzling.
Alan Jay Lerner's book for Coco is jokey when it should be heartfelt, and includes a rather inert subplot about Chanel taking on a young modeling protege, in a relationship that's meant to be maternal but comes off as Sapphic. Plus, the book and songs exhibit just a bit too much of Lerner's condescension towards women. (It's no surprise that he was married 8 times.) "A Woman is How She Loves" is a particularly bizarre and misogynistic anti-fashion screed. (e.g. "But who cares where the hems are if dismal the stems are?")
Other than the show itself, the main attraction at this Coco was cabaret star Andrea Marcovicci in the title role. Marcovicci has played Coco before, as part of a staged concert at 42nd Street Moon in San Francisco in 2008. At first, Marcovicci wasn't faring well with the comedy, but she eventually got a handle on it when she let it flow from character rather than from forced line readings.
Marcovicci was more consistent, and effective, in her dramatic acting. In fact, at times she was immensely moving, particularly during "Gabrielle/Coco" and "Always Mademoiselle." Her singing was surprisingly thin, given her reputation in the cabaret world, but that may have been because most of the score seemed to take place on the break between her head and chest voice. Since there was only piano accompaniment, it makes me wonder why the York didn't have the music transposed for her, or find a pianist who could transpose on sight.
The rest of the cast was serviceable, at times inspired. The clear-voiced Lewis Cleale fared especially well in the role of Coco's absent father, played by Jon Cypher in the original production. David Turner was an admirable model of restraint as the fey Sebastian Baye, at least compared to the embarrassingly over-the-top René Auberjonois, who surprisingly won a Tony Award for originating the role. (Then again, perhaps it's not so surprising: it was a very slow year, and Auberjonois only had two competitors: Brandon Maggart in Applause and the late George Rose, his Coco costar.) In the George Rose role of Coco's long-time attorney and confidante, Charles Kimbrough didn't seem to have a clear handle on humor, which got lost amid some rather bizarre mannerisms, prompting ruminations among my cohorts and me as to whether he might be ailing physically.
Overall, I have to say cheers to the York for their mission of bringing us these forgotten little gems. For the most part, there's a reason they've been forgotten, but it's always a pleasure to experience something neglected from the past. I already have my ticket to the next Mufti show: The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd. Watch for my review in the coming weeks.