Irma la Douce
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 15, 2008
As far as I can tell, Musicals Tonight!'s production of Irma la Douce is the first appearance of this show on a New York stage since its Broadway bow, back in 1960. Irma is arguably the finest score of this vintage that hasn't been showcased in a first-class revival on or off Broadway; so Mel Miller's mounting is thrilling and illuminating for fans of the so-called Golden Age of Musicals.
What an interesting show it turns out to be! I know it from its cast album and from the film that Billy Wilder made of it—a Jack Lemmon/Shirley MacLaine vehicle that kept the title and the broad outline of the story but, bizarrely, dispensed almost entirely with Marguerite Monnot's remarkable score. So the chance to see Irma la Douce as it was originally experienced nearly 50 years ago, with the English book and lyrics by Julian More, David Heneker, and Monty Norman, is pretty revelatory.
This is, as the show's narrator Bob explains right from the outset, the story of a poule, which as we soon find out is argot for prostitute. Irma la Douce is the first person we see in this show (and the only woman in it); though the plot is relentlessly comic and fantastical, there's no getting past the melancholy of this irresistible woman—indeed, it pervades just about every note of Monnot's music, from the opening strains of "Valse Milieu," which begins the show, to the last thing we hear Irma sing, a reprise of the signature ballad "Our Language of Love."
Irma's mec (pimp), Polyte-le-Mou, is boss of the shady characters who congregate at Bob's Bar des Inquiets in Pigalle (Paris); he's in cahoots with a corrupt police inspector. When naive law student Nestor wanders into Bob's (probably by mistake), he is offended by Polyte's shabby treatment of Irma, and challenges him. Surprisingly, he manages to intimidate Polyte, and finds himself in the unlikely position of becoming Irma's new mec. But Nestor is the jealous type, and doesn't like that other men are sleeping with the woman he loves (for Irma and Nestor have fallen in love, pretty much at first sight). So Nestor invents M. Oscar, a wealthy man whom he pretends to be and who becomes Irma's only client. But even this arrangement manages to inflame Nestor's jealousy, so he "murders" M. Oscar. Unfortunately, he gets caught, arrested, and sent to Devil's Island.
If the foregoing synopsis sounds like the stuff of socially conscious protest drama rather than the screwball comedy that Irma la Douce mostly is, well, then I've described it for you accurately. What struck me most of all about this show that, it turns out, I knew very little about, is how Brechtian it is. Bob, the narrator/bartender, breaks the fourth wall all the time; the idea that everyone is corruptible and that money can buy anything is the predominant theme of the piece. The light-hearted Monty Python-ish farce feels quite grafted onto the cynical, moody story.
It makes for an odd balance, and director Thomas Sabella-Mills has not, I think, had enough time with his actors to achieve it successfully. The songs, under the musical direction/accompaniment of Rick Hip-Flores, work best, especially the fine harmonies of the mecs in "Sons of France," "There is Only One Paris for That," and "From a Prison Cell." The comedy, requiring split-second timing to really succeed, works less well; for one thing, the Musicals Tonight! convention of having the cast members hold their scripts in hand throughout makes for cumbersome moves during the various sight gags. Sabella-Mills has the actors adopting French accents, which they drift in and out of—this seems like an unnecessary idea since everybody in the show is from the same place, and it sometimes makes it hard for the razor-sharp wit of lyrics like "But" and "Le Grisbi is le Root of le Evil in Man" to be clearly heard.
Vanessa Lemonides triumphs as Irma; she's sexy and vulnerable and warm and funny in the role, and she dances and sings beautifully. Her two big numbers, "Dis-Donc" and the title song, are definite highlights.
I am very glad to have seen Irma la Douce at Musicals Tonight! It's now pretty clear to me that this is not a show that's likely to be revived anywhere else anytime soon; so for all of you out there who have been curious about this most atypical musical comedy from Broadway's past, don't miss out on the chance to see it.