EmptyPasadena Playhouse, Pasadena
Through Aug. 5
Leave it to Cole Porter to rhyme "derriere" with "prayer," a feat he nimbly accomplishes in the opening number of "Can-Can." It's a typical bit of Porter wordplay, sophisticated and witty with just a touch of the naughty about it. Perfect for a show about a high-kicking dance that once scandalized Paris.
The real scandal is that "Can-Can" has languished for more than half a century -- despite Porter's charming score -- due mainly to a weak book from the usually reliable Abe Burrows and the need for a large, skilled cast. Those high kicks and leaping, full-frontal splits (ouch!) can't be easy to perform.
At the Pasadena Playhouse, Joel Fields and David Lee have wrought a small miracle with their clever rewrite and Lee's inspired staging. The show, finally, not only works like a charm, but Patti Colombo's choreography is right up there with the best of Broadway. When an audience roars its approval for dance numbers, you know something special is going on.
At heart, "Can-Can" is an old-fashioned love story with a French twist. Can Pistache (Michelle Duffy), the hot-blooded chanteuse who runs the Bal du Paradis, find happiness with Aristide (Kevin Earley), the repressed, cold-blooded judge who's out to make her pay for her sins? Duffy and Earley are terrific as the mismatched pair, who get to sing such memorable Porter songs as "I Love Paris," "Allez-Vous En," "C'est Magnifique," "I Am in Love" and the haunting "It's All Right With Me." Pistache's "Every Man Is a Stupid Man" was also well-received.
A standard subplot concerns Hilare (David Engel), a predatory, arrogant art critic (is there another kind?) with a deep, dark secret. A strange swordfight one can only call whimsical in Act 2 between Hilare and Boris (Amir Talai), a struggling sculptor (is there another kind?), is splendidly staged and quite comical. Also appearing are Yvette Tucker as Claudine, Pistache's straying secretary, and Robert Yacko as Le Petomane, the noted French flatulist -- or "fartiste" as he's called here.
But the soul of the show is the can-can itself, a dance whose surging sexual energy comes to dominate everything else onstage. Watching the leggy dancers -- Andrea Beasom, Bonnie Bentley, Alaine Kashian, Jeanine Myers, Alison Mixon, Leslie Stevens and Rebecca Whitehurst -- take such open pleasure in their female capacity appears to be a treat for both sexes.
The Playhouse has put more money than usual into this production, and it shows. Roy Christopher's artist-inspired sets are lovely to look at, and Randy Gardell's costumes -- ranging from the colorfully flouncy to the delicately frothy -- are often sheer poetry. It's just possible that this production could bring ruffled white underpants back in vogue. Who needs thongs?
Presented by the Pasadena Playhouse
Music and lyrics: Cole Porter
Book: Abe Burrows
Revised book: Joel Fields, David Lee
Director: David Lee
Choreographer: Patti Colombo
Set designer: Roy Christopher
Lighting designer: Michael Gilliam
Costume designer: Randy Gardell
Sound designer: Francois Bergeron
Arrangements, orchestrations, musical direction: Steve Orich
Video designer: Austin Switser
Fight coordinator: Tim Weske
Pistache: Michelle Duffy
Aristide: Kevin Earley
Hilare: David Engel
Boris: Amir Talai
Claudine: Yvette Tucker
Le Petomane: Robert Yacko
Etienne: Justin Robertson
Hercule: Jeffrey Landman
Can-Can Girls: Andrea Beasom, Bonnie Bentley, Alaine Kashian, Jeanine Myers, Alison Mixon, Leslie Stevens, Rebecca Whitehurst