"Can-Can," Cole Porter and Abe Burrows' 1953 musical set in decadent, turn-of-the-century Paris, has a certain je ne sais quoi. As the new Pasadena Playhouse production reveals, it also has a dazzling Porter score with several unforgettable standards, a Moulin Rouge atmosphere affording lots of high-flying leggy numbers and a touch of romance to play off the Parisian night sky.
With assets like these, it's no wonder the show refuses to vanish from the stage despite its obvious shortcomings. Chief among these is the book, which has local color to spare and a few zingy laugh lines but not much credible plotting or confident pacing and way too many roles to fill. (Revivals, few and far between, don't come cheap.) Burrows, best known as the book writer of the ageless "Guys and Dolls" and the Pulitzer-winning "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," had great Broadway instincts, but in "Can-Can" they seem to have been mislaid at customs. One keeps waiting for the story to subside so the next tune or dance number can arrive tout de suite.
The production, which opened Friday with a reworked script by Joel Fields and the show's director, David Lee, doesn't quite iron out all the wrinkles that Walter Lang's 1960 film version with Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra only made worse. And the new second act is just as messy as before, with strands of narrative in desperate need of sorting and the same conspicuous absence of a genuine showstopper.
But Lee's staging has something indispensable to making "Can-Can" step lively again -- an insouciant, merrymaking attitude that coaxes you into forgiving almost anything.
This is the reason the revival succeeds to the extent that it does, turning a problem-riddled Playhouse offering into a lighthearted summer treat that's as unexpectedly refreshing as champagne served in plastic cups at a barbecue.
Set designer Roy Christopher deserves credit for transporting us to Montmartre with a wink and a smile. The Bal du Paradis, the dance hall where the attractive proprietor, Pistache (Michelle Duffy), is clashing with the authorities over her dancers' racy can-can routines, resembles a giant heart-shaped box of chocolates. And from the Cafe Tabac tables in the red-light district to the moonlit Pont Neuf, where the new conservative judge Aristide (Kevin Earley) contemplates jumping into the Seine out of lovesickness for the woman whose establishment he wants to close down, the delightful impression is of a whimsically painted postcard.
In telling how love comes to blossom between Pistache and Aristide, Lee and his team invite a bit of audience participation. (Not to worry, shy types: Just don't look Pistache in the eyes when she does the pre-show greeting at her club.) There's even a post-intermission request to help out with new lyrics for the reprise of the big "Can-Can" number although, audience suggestions aside, Porter's original words still get jotted down.
We're being primed for fun. And who wouldn't be in a jolly mood after hearing "Never Give Anything Away," "Live and Let Live" and "C'est Magnifique," to say nothing of the timeless "I Love Paris"? The postwar American infatuation with all things French is evident in Patti Colombo's mildly naughty choreography, which is buoyantly energetic if at times a bit crammed-looking on the Playhouse stage. But it's Porter's orchestral score that intoxicatingly keeps us in Gay Paree.
The music (conducted by Steve Orich, who occasionally ventures a bit of loopy repartee) is dominated by the voices of Pistache and Aristide. Duffy and Earley may not make the most winsome pair of lovers, but they deliver their songs with the unique blend of power and subtlety that Porter's work demands.
Duffy brings salty vitality to the role of the club owner eager to transform her establishment into the most exciting hotspot in town. Pistache is after financial independence as much as a good time for her patrons, but she's not beyond a little old-fashioned romance, which is why she loves equally singing about Paris, "in the winter, when it drizzles" and "in the summer, when it sizzles." Duffy captures the hard and soft of the woman and can patter to a crowd like a barker who knows what her spectators have really come to see.
Earley commands attention with his strong set of pipes and clear adoration of Porter's wizardry. There's a youthful innocence to his portrayal of Aristide, which doesn't clarify the nature of his character but turns him into a figure you want to see attain his amorous goal, especially after he blows the cover off "It's All Right With Me," the song in which he unwittingly confesses his true feelings to a disguised Pistache. (Kudos to costume designer Randy Gardell for the parade of masks as well as the nifty dance-hall wear so shamelessly admired by Toulouse-Lautrec, who appears briefly as a paper cutout).