The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: Theater Review

It’s simple: if you like the movie, you’ll like the show.

Fans of Jacques Demy's 1964 film of the same name will like the new stage musical version, currently playing at London's Gielgud Theatre.

LONDON – Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a romantic weepy with beautiful colors and unforgettable melodies by Michel Legrand that won devoted followers, and anyone who liked the film will like the new stage musical version.

Not everyone’s tasse de thé although it won the Palme d’Or at the Festival de Cannes, the film is beautiful to look at, not least thanks to the young Catherine Deneuve, and tells an achingly melancholy tale of love in fine style. The stage version, adapted by Emma Rice and her Kneehigh troupe, has similar attributes with lovely singing and stage tricks to make up for the lack of lyrical cinematography.

The main difference is the introduction of a mistress of ceremonies, or maitresse (teacher) as she calls herself, played by Australian cabaret star Meow Meow, who has won acclaim in London and New York. Dressed in a clinging black number with a thigh-high split skirt and never without a cigarette, she establishes the story at the opening curtain and remains on stage throughout the production to pop in an out of scenes.

Without her unmistakable sex appeal and charm, the role might get in the way, but Meow Meow (formerly named Melissa Madden Gray) has oompf to spare and her drollery adds some welcome pepper to the proceedings.

The show follows the film closely as teenaged Genevieve (Carly Bawden) and garage mechanic Guy (Andrew Durand) fall in love despite the disapproval of the girl’s mother, Madame Emery (Joanna Riding). Madame runs the umbrella shop in Cherbourg, a French seaside town that in 1957 has seen better days.

Faced with bills that pile up, Madame decides to sell her jewelry and that’s when Genevieve meets wealthy Roland Cassard (Dominic Marsh), who is smitten instantly. No sooner have Genevieve and Guy sworn eternal love than he is called up to join the French army, embroiled in the war in Algeria. But the girl is pregnant and when Cassard shows that is no obstacle to his pursuit of her, the die is cast.

As in the film, the key to the show’s success is the elegance of French composer Legrand’s music since all conversation is sung through. Sheldon Harnick has done a terrific job with the English lyric translations, which are witty and clever, and never mundane. The famous song “I Will Wait For You” is introduced in the first act and returns several times to lock into the brain of every audience member. It is, however, sung with ineffable sweetness by Bawden, whose tone, breathing and diction are of the highest order.

Legrand, who was at the West End first night presentation, did the orchestrations and vocal arrangements, and the singing of the other cast members is of similar quality. Durand captures his soldier’s growing bitterness and Cynthia Erivo displays lovelorn patience as Madeleine, the nurse of Guy’s ailing Aunt Emily. For some reason, Dominic Marsh plays auntie as well as the rich suitor, but he has a fine voice.

Riding gets to act and sing in anger, which is not always easy, and she carries it off blithely. Meow Meow also demonstrates a flare for bluesy torch songs with the addition of Legrand’s “Sans Toi” (Without You) with lyrics by Agnes Varda from Varda’s film “Cleo de 5 a 7.”

Set designer Lez Brotherston places all the action on a moveable set with stairways, lots of neon signs, a slide and miniature buildings that recreate Cherbourg. A trio of sailors and some femmes fatale flit about the stage, occasionally sing, move props, and even chauffer characters about the stage. One scene involves two sailors with their fingers in a spotlight to represent lovers walking.

It’s a bold attempt to manufacture the same kind of artifice that colored images achieve in the film and, remarkably, it conjures up a similarly rhythmic and fleeting charm.

Venue: Gielgud Theatre, London (Through Oct. 1)
Cast: Meow Meow, Joanna Riding, Carly Bawden, Andrew Durand, Dominic Marsh
Music: Michel Legrand
English lyrics: Sheldon Harnick
Director, adaptor: Emma Rice, based on the film by Jacques Demy
Set and costume designer: Lex Brotherston
Lighting designer: Malcolm Rippeth
Sound designer: Simon Baker