Silk Stockings


Lillian Bayliss Studio Theatre, Sadlers Wells, Sunday 22 May 2005


Review by Emma Shane © May 2005


This is one of those musicals, or at least stories that most people have heard of, without necessarily actually having heard or seen dramatised. The story was the subject of a talkie starring Grete Garbo, Ninotchka; While the 1950s Broadway musical was turned into an MGM film with Fred Astaire as Steven Canfield, Cyd Charisse as Ninotchka, and Janis Paige as Hollywood star Janice Dayton. So far I’ve only seen clips of the film, but it is more than likely the script would have been altered to suit Hollywood’s taste, these things generally are. (Certainly the number Stereophonic Sound was turned into a big dance duet, rather than a solo). It’s not the first time Ian Marshall-Fisher has presented the original stage version of a plot that may be better known from some film version, he has previously staged the original versions of: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, and Gay Divorce. Funnily enough at least one veteran from his productions of each of those shows is among this afternoon’s cast.


This is one of those Lost Musicals with just a simple piano accompaniment, and although sometimes a big orchestra can be fun, and lend something extra to the piece (as it did with two other Cole Porter musicals Gay Divorce and Du Barry Was A Lady) by and large I think the style of these shows (with their focus on the book writers work - in this case George S Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath, and, Abe Burrows) works best with just a piano; as long as you have a decent pianist on good form. And with his execution of the overture, Simon Beck quickly proves that he is up there with the best of the Lost Musicals pianists. Opening scene in a busy Paris hotel, performed enthusiastically by the chorus. First principal on stage, Peter Ilyitch Boroff a Russian composer, played by Frank Lazarus, learns he can’t ignore the summons to return to Moscow, Too Bad the chorus sing this catchy Cole Porter number.  By telephone his agent, Steven Canfield played by Martin Turner reassures him. Presently a trio of comical comrades Ivanov, Brankov and Bibinski, excellently played by experienced Lost Musicals comedians James Vaughan and Neil McCaul, along with newcomer Nigel Anthony. Canfield claims that Boroff is a French Citizen because his father was French, which is news to all of them, but he can produce an affidavit supposedly signed by Boroff’s father. However, it will take weeks to go through the French courts; meanwhile he’s arranged for Boroff’s music to be used in a new independent picture starring another of his clients Janice Dayton. So the comic trio will have to remain in Paris also, and they join in a reprise of Too Bad.  Now we know this show has a good chance of being well up to Ian Marshall-Fisher’s usual excellent standard.

                Back in Russia the old Commissar Of Art, voiced by versatile James Vaughan (how many parts is he going to play this time? - he often plays 3 or 4 in these shows, once he managed 5! but this time he’s only listed in the programme to play one) is being replaced by a new Commissar Of Art, Commissar Markovitch, played by Matt Zimmerman. There is a pleasant comedy interlude between him and his mistress, Vera, a ballet dancer, played with engaging charm by Samantha Giffard, unfortunately she wants his wife’s job. But that is a minor matter compared to the Boroff problem, the composer must be brought back, as must the three men sent to bring him back. Enter Ninotchka played Valerie Cutko; Markovitch is surprised to find it is a woman, who has been ordered to carry out the job. She seems rather mechanical, somewhat reminiscent of Jeri Ryan’s Borg drone (in Star Trek Voyager), but not nearly as good looking. Back in Paris the comic trio have been enjoying the decadent imperialistic life, currently they are waiting in their hotel room to share champagne with some girlfriends they have made. There’s a knock at the door, Ivanov is sure it is his Susanna, and decides to hide behind the door. They are thrown into comic confusion when their orthodox comrade enters: Trying to offer her champagne and kisses instead of paperwork. Presently Canfield turns up and takes charge of the situation, by attempting to seduce Ninotchka into the delights of Paris, Paris Loves Lovers. Not that this seems to have much effect on the drone. Meanwhile Boroff has been sent to meet Janice Dayton. Upon arrival at the hotel she is immediately surrounded by reporters wanting a story, why is she in Paris? She is here to make her first serious feature film; it will of course be shot with all the mod cons, such as Stereophonic Sound. Jessica Martin gives us the first well-known Porter number of the evening, and a superb performance at that. She really is in her element.  If you are going to have a caricature of a film star in a musical such as this, extolling the kind of film they are going to be making, then it really makes sense to use such a talented performer, who loves a film cliché as much as Jessica clearly does. This is one of those wonderful moments we sometimes get in the Lost Musicals shows, when performer takes a song that has become a standard and makes it very much their own, completely irrespective of who has sung it before or since. The only problem is, such things are hard to follow. In his hotel room, Canfield is still trying to seduce Ninotchka, they have been walking around Paris for hours, could they fall in love? She insists Its A Chemical Reaction That’s All, but her persists (with another Porter classic) I Want All Of You. Martin Turner sings well and proves to be an excellent actor, really very convincing, but I still fail to see what he finds in Ninotchka that makes her worth trying to seduce. Back in Russia Markovitch is threatened by several other Commissar’s (voiced by James Vaughan and Neil McCaul) over his failure to resolve the Boroff case, if Boroff and co are not back in Moscow within two days he will be held personally responsible. He promptly telephone’s Ninotchka to threaten her similarly. Meanwhile Boroff is somewhat unwillingly decadently occupied in meeting Janice at a Boutique, where she is trying on a new dress, but its what’s underneath the dress that matters, Satin And Silk. This is one of those deliciously naughty Cole Porter songs, just the kind of thing you want a good earthy belter for; and luckily for us Jessica Martin fits the bill admirably. Because the Lost Musicals are generally unmiked they provide a first rate singer with a great opportunity to play on a venue’s acoustics. Barbican Cinema 1 was a brilliant venue in this respect, and now at last we find that The Lillian Byliss Studio Theatre’s acoustics are comparable. Something that had not been apparent until Jessica took centre stage. There are few singers, even amongst the Lost Musicals talented gang who truly know how to play on a venue’s acoustics to the extent that Jessica does (and I’ve only come across one singer in the Lost Musicals Gang who can seriously rival Jessica in this respect). Boroff is not the only uneasy visitor to the Boutique, Ninochtka also drops in, but soon leaves in a huff. Back at the hotel at night, the comic trio are snooping around Ninotchka’s room, it seems none of them could sleep. Brankov has been having his nails manicured. “At four in the morning?” queries Ivanov. “I can’t sleep with long nails,” retorts Brankov. At which point I was momentarily reminded of the first time I saw Neil McCaul on stage in a Lost Musical, Cole Porter’s Red Hot & Blue (there was one scene in which his character has his nails manicured by the leading lady, who had said “I can’t let you get married with your nails looking like that”). Meanwhile, back to the plot of Silk Stockings, the trio are disturbed by the arrival of Canfield and Ninotchka, who has allowed herself to fall in love with Canfield, and he has got her drunk. I’m not always too keen on drunk acts in musicals, sometimes I’ve even found them unnecessary (for example in Two’s A Crowd), but on this occasion, given the way Valerie Cutkio is portraying her at least, it seems like Cranfield certainly had to do something to break through to Ninotchka. Drunk, but not so far gone as to loose all sense of propriety, Ninotchka soon begins to wonder nightmarishly Without Love.  But Canfield, ever the agent, reassuringly reprises All Of You.


Act 2 opens with the comic trio, clearly they’ve been enjoying themselves in decadent imperialistic Paris, when to their surprise they chance upon a very CP oriented book-stall. The proprietor is thrilled to meet some real Russians, immediately goes and calls her comrades to meet them too, and they all Hail Bibinski. The number was performed with great gusto by all the chorus, and our excellent comics, and contrasts sharply with the next two, set at the movie studios. Boroff’s music is being filmed, and all five Russians insist on being there. Canfield is delighted to see Ninotchka and, after admitting that the affidavit from Boroff’s “father” is a fake, tries to persuade her to behave for once like an American girlfriend, while he proposes to her, As On Through The Seasons We Sail. She seems to be on the verge of accepting him, but then, in the studio Janice and the chorus perform Josephine. This is another wickedly dirty Porter song, in a similar tradition to Kate The Great (the song about Katherine Of Russia that was cut from Anything Goes after Ethel Merman refused to sing it because it was too dirty). Boroff, and Ninotchka are both appalled by the way Boroff’s music has been mistreated, and Boroff agrees to return to Moscow immediately. So there is nothing to keep the five Russians any longer, they will catch the train tonight says Ninotchka. However, Babinski, Brankov and Ivanov are apprehensive, what will happen to them? They won’t be heroes; they might well be transported to Siberia. This number is a real Lost Musicals treat. I’d actually heard it last summer in an Around The World With Cole concert that Jason Carr captained at Chichester, and while it was done pretty well then, its performance this afternoon in its original context is so superior. The comic trio really come into their own with this number. All three are excellent, but one of them really stands out, and it is Ivanov played by James Vaughan. Not only does he lead the other two vocally, but his body language adds to the hilarity of the song, he has a funny trick (also used to liven up Through A Keyhole in As Thousands Cheer) of wriggling his eyebrows, this to this he adds a interesting jerk of his right ankle. His rather good at giving his Lost Musicals characters individual little traits like that. 

Back at the hotel, Canfield is disappointed that Ninotchka has departed, and just when a package he had ordered especially for her had arrived 365 pairs of Silk Stockings.

Back in Russia, evidently some months later, we learn what has happened to the quintet. In Ninotchka’s apartment, her three flatmates, all of whom seem to have some artistic leanings are busy preparing their evening stew, when Ninotchka enters, having just left a march she was on (once it reached her street), she’s never done that before. We learn that she was demoted from her Commissary job, and now manages an apartment block. Her flatmates say it’s hard on her but good for them; everyone in the artistic underground is talking about how free-thinking she is in allowing the residents to express themselves. It’s her turn to have their shared table for a party. A newcomer to their block enters, Boroff. Presently the comic trio turn up, they too have been demoted, to refuse collectors, Babinski is the dustcart driver. However they are trying to be cheery, at least they weren’t sent to prison camp. Boroff announces he will play his new work for them, its a Lost Musicals surprise, the cast suddenly push the piano, into the centre of the stage, Frank Lazarus sits down at it, and begins to play, Red Blues.  Until this moment I had actually forgotten that Frank Lazarus is in fact a composer himself, the musical A Day In Hollywood A Night In The Ukraine is listed in his credits as such.  His performance at the piano is excellent, and presently Simon Beck joins him for a duet. The party is interrupted first by the arrival of Canfield, who has come to get Ninotchka and take her back to America with him, and then by Markovitch who’s decided the time is right to arrest Ninotchka, and make her and Canfield sign confessions for their sins. But he is thwarted, for the others have plenty of dirt on him, which they can reveal, the heat is soon to be on him, especially when Ninotchka calls Vera in.  Markovitch is trapped, Camfield suggests he flees to the US, if he can get them a plane, he can (the stuff he’s got on the Air Commissar), Boroff naturally will come too, and the trio ask if they can come as well. And so the show ends with the kind of happy ending one might expect in an American musical.


Overall this was one of those excellent shows by and large pretty well up to Ian Marshall-Fisher’s usual high standards. All the chorus and bit players: Lisa Baird, Andrew Beavis, Alison Bennie, Samantha Giffard, David O’Brien, David Phipps-Davis, Benjamin Stirling, Vicki Stone, and Mark Torrance did a good job. Out of these I was particularly impressed by Samantha Giffard, who makes a good distinctive little supporting player (was it her red ringlets or her personality or could you have sworn it might have been both?). And what of our feature players? Well having about five regular member of the Lost Musicals Gang probably helped a lot. For a start Matt Zimmerman though his part was a bit on the small side performed it well, as one would expect. Another fairly reliable Lost Musicals regular (at least I think we must regard him as a regular) is Frank Lazarus. On the whole his performance was one of his best, and then towards the end a real surprise, when he took his place at the piano and gave a stunning performance of Red Blues. Perhaps the fact that besides being an actor he is also a composer himself gave his characterisation a little something extra. How often, I wonder, does it happen in a musical (or indeed anywhere) that an actor has to play a part where they have that kind of a connection with their character? The bulk of the comedy was in a trio of capable hands. It is very apparent that James Vaughan and Neil McCaul have been doing this sort of thing in the Lost Musicals for about a dozen years, and know exactly what they are doing with it, while Nigel Anthony does a fine job of keeping up with them. Another newcomer to these types of shows who did wonderfully well was Martin Turner. He is a very accomplished actor, as his extensive credits rather bear out, and in this afternoon’s show he acquitted himself extremely well, I certainly hope we’ll see him in the Lost Musicals again. The focus in the Lost Musicals is on the script writing not the acting, however, no matter how well written a line is, when performed even in a concert staging it only comes across as being as good as the actor who delivers it. Unfortunately, given that she was playing the title role Valerie Cutko was the least effective of the principals. Her performance was not bad, it just wasn’t quite as good as one would expect from a principal. She would have been fine in a supporting role. Initially she appeared to lack stage presonce (despite her height), her costume didn’t become her too well either. Her performance was very stiff, perhaps too stiff, as one couldn’t quite understand what Canfield saw in her. However, her performance improved, notably from the drunk scene at the end of Act 1 onwards. During Act 2 her performance was more convincing. Perhaps Ninotchka is a rather complicated character for any actress to portray. Characters who have to be outwardly harsh but underneath not really so unyielding, probably are difficult to portray well, very much like superbitches who aren’t really bitches (and I’ve only come across very few actresses who can do those sort of roles really well). Like I said, while Ms Cutko’s performance was not so good, it was not actually bad. The leading lady was rather eclipsed by the Second Woman, Jessica Martin, proving firstly that you don’t necessarily need height to have stage presonce, and secondly that there is more than one strong-voiced singer-actress amongst the Lost Musicals Gang, who has the ability to outshine whoever is supposed to be Leading Lady (who remembers Louise Gold’s irrepressible performance nine years ago in OTIS?). Of course in previous Lost Musicals when playing Second Woman to rather stronger Leading Ladies Jessica has also shown that she is more than capable of holding her own, and not getting overshadowed by them. In this show Jessica certainly delivers a stellar turn, very much up to the high standards we have come to expect in the Lost Musicals. Thanks largely to regulars such as Jessica Martin, Frank Lazarus, James Vaughan and Neil McCaul, along with Martin Turner and Nigel Anthony, this was one of Ian Marshall-Fisher’s better productions, the sort of show that reminds one: How well written those old American musicals are, what a great songwriter Cole Porter was, and just how good these Discovering Lost Musicals productions can be.




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