Can Can

Lillian Baylis Studio Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, Sunday 15 April 2006


Review by Emma Shane

© 21 April 2007


Sometimes the Discovering Lost Musicals productions are of long forgotten shows, others are shows that became successful films but lost their original script along the way, Can Can (like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever) is one of the latter. At one time the Lost Musicals didn’t do any Cole Porter for over two whole years, but both this year’s shows are Porter, and like most Lost Musicals with a Porter score, there are a number of famous songs in this one. Songs we might well recognise, without necessarily knowing where the come from or the context in which they were originally sung (especially as these are songs very often sung completely out of context).


As with the film the show opens in the courtroom on Judge Aristide Forestier’s first day on the bench. James Vaughan does one of his usual bit jobs, providing a supposedly off-stage voice over of the Court President, in a booming baritone. Three girls, playing defendants stand in front of him. The trio include Selina Chilton as Claudine and two out of: Sarah Applewood, Joanna Fell, and, Lara Denning (one of the latter three was absent, and I’m not sure which one). This trio proclaim that they are Maidens Typical Of France; in the form of a innuendous song typical of Cole Porter. The maidens all give names taken from history, and the statement reading out the names of the policemen who arrested them are given the names of famous artists. They are all apparently on holiday, and the only one present didn’t see anything because he is short-sighted and was guarding the exit. The case is thrown out of court due to a lack of evidence; much to the horror of the new judge, whose opinion is that even if the law is a wrong one, nevertheless it is the law and should be upheld until it is repealed. Aristide decides to visit Montmatre to investigate for himself.


In a street in Montmatre, a major subplot, not included in the film, is introduced, that of the dancer Claudine and her Bulgarian sculptor boyfriend Boris Adzinidzinaze played by that stalwart Lost Musicals comic actor James Vaughan (just about the only actor in the production who actually had to pronounce his character’s full name correctly). It’s clear that Claudine is the breadwinner; to the bewilderment of some characters; especially given how jealous Boris gets if Claudine so much as speaks to other men.


Inside the dance hall, Bal Du Paradis, we finally meet the leading lade, La Mome Pistache (there’s another difference from the film – where she was called Simone Pishache). Right away Valerie Cutko displays a warmer personality than she did in Silk Stockings, but nevertheless Pistache is a hard business woman, Never Give Anything Away, which she sings with sincerity. Aristide’s arrival on the scene presents a problem, but Pistache seems confident she can find a way round him, seduction perhaps, in her office, C’est Magnifique. Back out front at Bal Du Paradis it becomes clear that might not work. however, Hilaire Jussac, played by another stalwart Lost Musicals comic actor, Stewart Permutt, has some good news for Pistache, Bal Du Paradis has been chosen to host the next Quatz’ Arts Ball.


Meanwhile in a Sidewalk Cafe, Claudine encounters Jussac, who tries to well get a date with her, Come Along With Me. This number gives Stewart Permutt a super opportunity to exercise his singing, dancing and all round comedy talents. It’s rather good to find such a funny risque number given to a comedy singer-actor to do. And boy does he do it well. I could have easily envisaged Sam Kelly doing this number brilliantly, but Stewart Permutt is something of a surprise; for one might say he proves himself as good at Sam Kelly at this kind of a number (mind you I don’t know what Sam Kelly would really do with this number if he ever did it). Just when we think this number can’t possibly get any better, once Boris has turned up, and Jussac explains he wants Selina to tell him about Boris’s work, the number gets a reprise, in the form of Boris singing to Selina “Go along with him”, and Stewart adding “Woof Woof”.


The next scene finds Pistache and the other two dancers in prison, after Aristide had the Bal Du Paradis raided. The policeman releasing them, tells Pistache that Aristide wants to see her. She decides to try and play on his possible feelings for her. When this fails to work, she urges him to Live And Let Live. This is a song that was given to Maurice Chevalier as one of the judges to sing in the film, where it came across as saying “If you want a quiet life, live and let live”. Now restored to its original place in the show, we see this song for what it really is. And importantly Valerie Cutko does her best to do it justice as an actress. It comes across as a song with an altogether much more powerful message of tolerance. The girls in the Bal Du Paradis are not being exploited, as Pistache mentions they are happy to dance.  Could Cole Porter have intended this song to make a statement about sexual tolerance. After all this was a man who five years earlier managed to slip a reference to The Kinsey Report into the lyrics of Too Darn Hot. A powerful business women though Pistache is, she still cannot win Aristide round, but that makes her determined to have her revenge. Yet after she has gone he admits I Am In Love, which gives Christopher Dickens an fine opportunity to exercise his singing-acting talents. Though in terms of actually being noticed, he was fortunate in having Valerie Cutko as his leading lady, because although she did a jolly fine job with Live And Let Live, she did not stop the show with it (and there are some great singers of vitriolic numbers in whose hands it might have done so).


In The Artists Studio, Boris is busy arranging his sculptures for a visit by Jussac. In the middle of this a model, played by versatile Myra Sands enters, complaining about the stairs. She proceeds to do a great job of miming undressing. Claudine enters with the other two girls, and says that Jussac is just coming. Besides writing delightful love songs, and some quite naughty dirty ditties, he is well known for his comedy duets. These have been performed to great effect by such Lost Musicals pairings as: Janie Dee & Tim Flavin, Thelma Ruby & Peter Gale, Lauren Ward & Gavin Lee, Danielle Carson & Mark Frederick, Issy Van Randwyck & Joshua Dallas; and not forgetting Louise Gold pairing up with: Barry Cryer, Neil McCaul, Teddy Kempner, Jessica Martin, Michael Fitzpatrick, Lucy Page, and, Desmond Barrit at least. This afternoon it is Selina Chilton and James Vaughan’s turn to follow the footsteps of some very tough acts to follow. Nevertheless they rise gamely to the challenge, and acquit themselves jolly well with If You Loved Me Truly. In this they are joined by Boris’s fellow artists: Theopile, Hercule, and Etienne played by Chris Stanton, Ahmet Ahmet, and, David Phipps-Davis, as well as Selina’s fellow dancers, plus the waitress (at this point a model) played by Myra Sands. Nevertheless it is very much their number, their little triumph.

                Jussac enters, and presently Claudine and the girls leave, with Claudine warning Jussac “I hope you like everything you see”, unfortunately it soon becomes obvious he doesn’t really “get” Boris’s sculptors. Nevertheless the audience got a lot of laughs out of it. Even though we had to use our imaginations, by the time you’ve got such a good comedy actor as James Vaughan leading the other three artistes at miming pushing those statues around (Mr Vaughan mimes this with his left-hand, the other three do it with their right hands) one can’t help but be amused.


Out in the street, Aristide realises something is going on at Bal du Paradis. It doesn’t take him long to find out it is the Quatz’ Arts Ball.


At the Quatz’ Arts Ball, represented by the company singing Monmatre, Aristide is surprised to find himself guest of honour. Someone takes his photograph, he is embracing Pistache, the photograph is her revenge, it is hurried off to a developers and printers. Yet, perhaps Pistache made a mistake this time, would Aristide care so little for her as to have the ball raided? She lamets Allez-Vous-En. And so closes the first act.


Act 2 opens in The Artists Studio. Aristide wakes up with little memory of what has occurred, he is informed by the artists they only just dragged him out alive once the crowd at the Quatz’ Arts Ball recognised him. The artists lend him clothing and advise him to lie low for a while, as a civilian. I can’t remember exact order of this scene’s events. Did the song come first or the dialog? Anyway, the dialog part involves Jussac’s review of Boris’s work, when it turns out Jussac really slated Boris, the others insist Boris must fight a duel with Jussac over both the review and Claudine; he is rather reluctant. When Jussac turns up the other three egg them on until Jussac challenges Boris to a duel; Jussac has fought quite a number of duels (usually leaving his opponents dead – after all dead artists are a better commercial bet). Elsewhere in the scene, the quartet of artists, plus their model sing Never, Be An Artist. This is one of those great Cole Porter ensemble comedy numbers, of the sort that James Vaughan actually has a certain amount of experience of doing (well: he was part of the quartet who sang You Said It and the trio that sang God Bless The Women both in Panama Hattie, as well as the trio that performed Siberia to great effect in Silk Stockings). This afternoon James and Myra bring all their wealth of experience of Lost Musicals to this number; Watching carefully one might also notice Mr Vaughan’s funny little trick of wriggling his eyebrows for greater comic effect (on a line about marriage – which kind of reminded me of a certain cabaret artiste’s performance of The Girlfriend Of The Whirling Dervish). Overall it’s a great ensemble effort, and a super number, sung with a lot of feeling by all five artistes.


In The Cafe, Aristide, dressed as a civilian, and clearly missing Pistache, tries to chat up a girl, It’s Alright With Me; Which he does perfectly well, and more or less like it was done by Frank Sinatra in the film. Nevertheless it is great to see it presented in context, although it works very well out of context, and is perhaps the most widely sung number from the score. It has certainly been sung by quite a variety of performers, on records, in revues, concerts and cabarets, including a notable Muppet puppeteer sprawled on the grand piano at Lauderdale House!

                As Aristide comes to the end of his song, this is a variant from the film, Pistache enters and, surprisingly, drags him away from the girl, pointing out what kind of a girl that one is (something seedy). They hate each other, and are both in a fix, she’s lost her licence to run a cafe for good and has no money to start over. She suggests they should go into business. She could get a license to run a laundry. Aristide doesn’t seem interested, he’s more concerned about his legal career. He exits and Pistache sings bitterly Every Man Is A Stupid Man; which Valerie Cutko puts over to the best of her abilities, plus a noticeably American accent (well she is American).


In Monmatre, Aristide encounters Forestier, and learning he is denied a jury for his hearing, is determined to get a jury trial, but how to ensure that? By breaking the law. He borrows money from Forestier to go into business with Pistache. She is delighted and agrees to his terms, it will be an equal business. Aristide arranges for Forestier to raid the venture, in order that he and Pistache will stand trial for a test case, though he decides not to tell Pistache about that until later.


On the Rooftop of Pistache’s new venture La Blanchisserie, the Waitress comes up for a smoke, and expresses her surprise at how kind her mistress has been to her recently. Pistache, entering, says it because the waitress hasn’t been stealing. Once the Waitress goes back to work, Pistache sings I Love Paris. This is another well known number, often done out of context; and although I can never quite forget Kim Criswell’s recording of it (well we all have our favourites), nevertheless Valerie Cutko does it perfectly well. The Artists enter for their duel, and advise Piastache to leave, she is surprised to learn that duels still take place. A Doctor, played by Alex Browne will referee the duel, and presently Jussac arrives. It’s quite obvious Boris has no desire to fight, especially not with swords. At this point James Vaughan shifts his script book from his left hand (he usually holds it in his right), to mime the sword fighting with his right hand. This only serves to make Boris look even more uncomfortable. Presently Boris falls down in a faint, so his second (one of the other artists)takes his sword, but he too falls down in a faint. At this point Aristide enters, and asks what is going on, just as Jussac is getting impatient. Aristide’s sense of justice is appalled at Jussac trying to duel with such a coward as Boris, and takes up the sword himself; and beats Jussac, at which the other two come out of their faint, and Jussac offers to make it up to Boris by writing another review, saying he was mistake and that Boris is actually a great artiste. Jussac exits. Aristide thanks the artistes for reminding him of his true values. The exit, and Pistache enters, she and Aristide duet a reprise of C’est Manifique. Then Aristide makes the mistake of telling her about his plans to get arrested, to contrive a test case. They quarrel, and he storms off with the intention of facing his tribunal instead.


In Prison Aristide is visited by Forestier, who points out that it was what he requested, and takes him to his trial.


In the Court Of Assizes, once again James Vaughan is playing the Court President (and partially hidden from view by the girls). Aristide takes the stand, and tries to claim full responsibility for La Blanchisserie, but is informed they have a witness to the contrary. “Who?” he asks. “Me” says Pistache entering. She proceeds to defend them both, explaining that her girls are happy when they dance; until Aristide interrupts her saying “Don’t teach them about the law, just teach them the Can Can”; at which she launches into the song Can Can, and presently the entire company join in. Of course being a Concert Staging there was no actual dancing, nevertheless it is a fun, rather risqué song, and it’s great to see this classic in its original context. Of course being a classic it has been sung quite a lot, and therein lies a problem, many of us will have recollections of other people’s interpretations of the song, some of which (such as the likes of Louise Gold or Darlene Johnson singing Jason Carr’s arrangement) are very tough acts to follow. Perhaps wisely, Valerie Cutko does not try too hard with this song. She presents it simply, as befits a concert staging, and sticks to what she can do with it (rather than trying to attempt anything she couldn’t do). Thereby she and indeed the whole cast collectively bring the show to the only conclusion they could.


The Discovering Lost Musicals have been going for eighteen years, and during that time there have been some amazing highs (especially with Cole Porter musicals). The trouble is if one saw some of those highlights, almost any recent production may seem a little dimmer by comparison, even if they are very good. Wondering if perhaps one is being nostalgic prompts careful consideration of the past shows. Were any of them absolutely truly practically perfect in every way? Well in fact there is one show (and yes a Cole Porter one) that springs to mind. Over the eighteen years, Discovering Lost Musicals has built up quite a gang of performers, a good number of whom (such as: Valda Avicks, Sam Kelly, Jessica Martin, Mandy Moore, Liza Pulman, Thelma Ruby, and, Matt Zimmerman) have appeared time and time again. There are however five who really stand out, a quintet of performers who always turn out a brilliant performance no matter what their role in the Lost Musicals, they are: Louise Gold, Neil McCaul, Stewart Permutt, Myra Sands, and, James Vaughan. Most of the Lost Musicals shows have included at least one of these five (Myra Sands, followed by James Vaughan have probably been in the most), but the best productions have usually featured two or three of them; And indeed this afternoon is certainly among that elite group, since it features three of them, all in good roles. I don’t think there is any Lost Musical that has had even four of that magic quintet together (they are all busy professional performers, with busy lives). But once, just once, in 1996, Ian Marshall-Fisher managed to field all five in a show together, and that show was Panama Hattie.  So if I am overly critical of any Lost Musical in my reviews, maybe it’s sometimes a bit unfair, but honestly Panama Hattie set a golden standard. So many of the Lost Musicals shows are good, but they always have the impossible problem of living up to that one.


As a Lost Musicals concert staging, Can Can is very much an ensemble effort. The whole cast (including: Ahmet Ahmet, Alex Browne, David Phipps-Davis, Chris Stanton, Fabio Tassone, and the two chorus girls) all contribute. Mark Etherington gives a perfectly decent piano accompaniment too. The principals, if indeed they can be called such also play their part as members of a good ensemble.

Selina Chilton, in only her second Lost Musical, proves, as she did with Nymph Errant, what a good find she is. She acts convincingly, makes her character engaging, wins the audience over, and sings decently. Let’s hope she continues to play a part in the Lost Musicals, she’s a welcome addition to the gang.

Newcomer Christopher Dickens also proves to be yet another of those decent male actors that Ian Marshall-Fisher seems to have a gift for finding. His singing is lovely, and that’s important when you’ve got a role that Frank Sinatra sang on film. Although the Lost Musicals’ focus is on the books, one of their strengths is their use of singers who can make classic songs their own, with a passing nod to whoever originated them or whoever they are associated with. Amazingly, for the second time in a Lost Musical (the other was Frank Lazarus being a composer in Silk Stockings) we have an actor playing a role where he does actually know something about his character’s job. It turns out that Christopher Dickens actually studied Law at Cambridge. Well how often does something like that occur on the stage? But there is one other really surprising thing about his training; Last summer I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging Sion Lloyd managed to be in Avenue Q, then I was even more surprised by what a decent performance Hal Fowler turned out in Bad Girls The Musical. But Christopher Dickens, well! that really is a surprise.

Stewart Permutt, a stalwart, back again, and this time with his surname back to how it’s usually been. He always gives a good performance. But this afternoons was definitely one of his best. He just connected to totally with the script, and gave it everything. I’m sure Sam Kelly could’ve done this role brilliantly too, but Stewart Permutt certainly did it proud. Over the years he’s played many great comedy roles for Lost Musicals, but rarely has he played a character that actually had such depth. The role really gave him something to get his teeth into

Myra Sands is also one of the great stalwarts of the gang, she has been in more Lost Musicals than anyone else. It’s always good to see her back, especially if she has a decent part. And this was a fairly decent part; which being the excellent steady reliable performer she is, she made the most of; and did to her usual high standards.

                One person who seems to be on the verge of rivalling Myra, for appearing in the greatest number of Lost Musicals, is James Vaughan. For a long time seemed to be shoved in wherever the Lost Musicals needed a versatile comic actor, usually taking on a variety of comic bit roles in a single show (I think the most was five in I’d Rather Be Right in 1999). Good though he is at those, they can sometimes seem like a slight waste of talent. This afternoon is one of the better occasions, when he gets to develop a proper character role, and in fact quite a major subplot character; an opportunity he rises admirably to as an actor, and then there is his singing. James Vaughan has long proved himself to be a fine comic singer as part of a group doing a comedy number or on the odd solo (and one of those included having Louise Gold and Kim Criswell as his backing singers), but this time he actually gets to do a delovely funny Cole Porter duet. One would like to see him do more of them. And excellent though Selina Chilton is, wouldn’t it be great if perhaps one day the Lost Musicals could pair him with their most experienced Cole Porter comic duestist. Surely he’d stand a good chance of being a good enough comedy singer-actor not to get overshadowed.

                Valerie Cutko’s performance, in only her second Lost Musical, is very definitely an improvement on her performance in Silk Stockings. For a start, she seems to have got more into the character she is playing, given it more thought, or perhaps she connects better with the role. She’s also much less stiff, making an effort to win the audience over from the start. Pistache does appear a somewhat mixed up character, we can never quite be sure what she is thinking. But that is entirely in keeping with the character, and it ensures our sympathies are with Aristide. There may be other ways to play this role, but Valerie Cutko’s interpretation of it a perfectly satisfactory and convincing one. As far as the singing goes. If I’m going to be really honest and critical, I could say there are talented singers who could probably do more with some of these songs, and indeed do them better (In fact I can think of two straight off – one of whom is currently playing a villain in a big West End show, and the other is currently, also a villain, on tour in Bristol). However Valerie Cutko is by no means bad. She does the songs perfectly satisfactorily, and puts them simply back into their original context. In fact her simple handling of them is probably very sensible. Yes there are singers who can and would do amazing things to some of those songs. But firstly, in a concert staging where the emphasis is on the writing and the original context, one has to ask if extraordinary renditions are actually what is wanted? (to which the answer might depend on what the singing talents of the performers who originally sang them were actually like); and secondly, unless a singer has genuine comic flair for doing extraordinary renditions, then it’s preferable to keep it simple. It is far better that a singer sticks to what they can do well, rather than trying and failing to do something which they cannot do well. Another great improvement on her appearance in Silk Stockings, was in her choice of costume. In the Lost Musicals the men are always in a simple suit and bow tie, the women, however, have more freedom of choice, as long as they are wearing mainly black evening dresses, and leading ladies are usually allowed a little more colour flexibility. Even the best looking of ladies can make mistakes with unflattering costume choices (for example: very curvy singers probably shouldn’t wear pencil skirts, and well endowed performers should probably watch that the cut of their garment doesn’t hang of their endowment). And Ms Cutko does look a lot better with her shoulders covered. One might also add, that for this afternoon’s performance she had on terrific skirt, one that, was only right for the character she was playing but, that really really suited her. So well done there.  Finally, how does she fair as being Leading Lady. Well thanks to her improved acting, this time she comes across as more of a Leading Lady than she did in Silk Stockings. She is certainly at least as good as Nicola Fuljames in this respect. However, she was lucky that none of her co-stars had too much presence to be over-dominating. I think there was only one who (judging by previous Lost Musicals performances) had the skill and potential to steal the show from her, but fortunately for her he did not do so.


All in all a good afternoons entertainment. With a great Cole Porter score, three of the magic five around  the show can count as one of the Lost Musicals better productions (although not a truly spectacular one). It certainly has some splendid moments, including, Stewart Permutt’s bizarre Come Along With Me; James Vaughan and Selina Chilton’s terrific little duet If You Loved Me Truly, not to mention the four artistes plus Myra Sands with the heartfelt Never Be An Artist. And finally, this is a musical about censorship so hearing Live And Let Live, restored to its original glory is one of the best highlights of this show.




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