Mimi le Duck
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 29, 2006
Mimi le Duck is one of the worst musicals I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot of musicals.
Now please believe me when I say that I report this not with schadenfreude-inflected glee or fabulous-invalid-in-the-death-throes cynicism, but rather with dismay and sadness. Mimi, a hit of the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival, stocked to the gills with theatrical know-how (Matt West, John Arnone, Ann Hould-Ward, Tom Aldredge, Candy Buckley, Ken Jennings, Eartha Kitt!—at least a dozen Tony nominations among them), is just the newest casualty of a process for making musicals that is obviously badly broken. How does a charming germ of an idea and a passel of can-do talent produce such a depressingly shoddy, witless mess?
I won't attempt to answer my rhetorical question; instead I'll just tell you what I saw on stage at Mimi le Duck. The story begins in Ketchum, Idaho, where Miriam, a 44-year-old Mormon woman with an accountant for a husband, two children in college, and a job painting pictures of ducks that she sells on QVC, realizes that she's having a midlife crisis. She's bored painting ducks; she's tired of her husband's brown socks. (That's pretty much the extent of the information we're provided.)
One day, Ernest Hemingway appears to her in a vision. Hemingway shot himself 45 years before in this very same town of Ketchum; he's been stuck here in the afterlife waiting for someone to be as suicidally depressed as he was, and that someone turns out to be Miriam. He advises her to go to Paris, rent a room at 22 Rue Danou (where he says he worked nearly a century before), and pursue her true artistic calling. Miriam does all of these things.
At 22 Rue Danou, she meets the following eccentric characters: an oyster shucker named Claude who wants to be Miss Marple; a sculptress named Clay who used to make Eiffel Tower knick-knacks that she sold at craft fairs (we find that out when Miriam asks to borrow a glue gun); Clay's estranged husband, a Spanish Gypsy pickpocket; and the proprietress of the boarding house, the ageless Mme. Vallet (about whom all you need to know is that she's played by Eartha Kitt).
Miriam gets a job at a local cabaret that has no customers, the cabaret where Mme. Vallet once worked (a long time ago: during World War II, apparently), which is run by an ex-lover of Mme. Vallet's named Ziggy. Miriam becomes a waitress there and changes her name to Mimi and is given a uniform that includes a headdress that looks like a duck (hence the show's title).
Eventually, Miriam's husband finds her in Paris and, through a variety of machinations that don't make much sense, he discovers his true calling as an oyster shucker and the two are reunited; when last seen, he's switched to bright red socks. Vallet and Ziggy have a reunion, as do Clay and the Spanish Gypsy. Claude gets a Miss Marple costume and heads off for sexual reassignment.
Now, the notion at the heart of Mimi le Duck is really quite lovely—that no matter how old we are or how settled in life we seem to be, there's always room for possibility and change. But Diana Hansen-Young, who wrote the book and lyrics, pursues her theme so clumsily and illogically that it's hard to follow developments let alone empathize with them. Why, most fundamentally, would Miriam's muse be a writer if her art is painting? Hansen-Young substitutes cliches and stereotypes for originality throughout the show: debts to the musicals Me and My Girl, The Secret Garden, and Sunday in the Park with George are noticeable in the first half-hour of the show; cheap shots at Mormons and Gypsies serve no purpose and could easily be excised.
Director Thomas Caruso and lead producer Mango Hill Productions LLC—both inexperienced in crafting commercial musicals, as far as I can tell—do nothing to help Hansen-Young and her composer, Brian Feinstein, shape this thing into something workable. In fact, the second act, at just 25 minutes long, has seemingly been so cut and compromised that it's barely comprehensible. The show's official opening night was delayed a week to accommodate a new song in Act Two for Miss Kitt; it was not worth the wait and should signal to future producers that whatever talents Hansen-Young and Feinstein might possess, writing on spec under pressure clearly isn't one of them.
The sets by John Arnone are laughably cheap-looking—a bunch of metal-and-wood pieces on wheels that everyone in the cast has to drag back and forth as the scenes shift (except for Miss Kitt; she has her own piece on which she is wheeled on and off stage). The costumes by Ann Hould-Ward range from elegant and tasteful (for Miss Kitt) to hideous and unflattering (for almost everyone else).
The performances are committed. Marcus Neville, as Miriam's husband Peter, possesses a lovely voice and gets to put it to good use in a couple of songs. Robert DuSold is daffy as Claude and Candy Buckley seems to have a good enough time as the rowdy Clay. Tom Aldredge is ill-suited to the role of Ziggy, however, and his singing voice proves to be more of a croak in his one solo. Ken Jennings (the Spanish Gypsy) and Allen Fitzpatrick (Hemingway) have very little to do. Annie Golden has too much to do: I'd reckon that her lackluster work throughout and especially her abysmal handling of her (admittedly poorly written) 11 o'clock solo might keep her out of the running for any future leading roles on the musical stage.
Which leaves the formidable, ageless, and entirely remarkable Eartha Kitt, who saves this thing from being a complete calamity and a complete waste of time. While any current Broadway show could surely offer her something more interesting to do than what she's saddled with here, Miss Kitt is the grand trouper and reminds us why she's now not just a star but a legend. Alas, the American theatre doesn't treat its legends too good.
Is the 10 or so minutes we get of unmitigated Eartha worth the $70 tariff for Mimi le Duck? I'd argue that it's not, and hope that the game Miss Kitt gets worthier employment somewhere else soon.