Russian dressing: The vintage charms of Silk Stockings

May 09

Silk Stockings 1
Ninotchka (Lee Ann Payne) explains the Communist theory of romance to a skeptical Steve Canfield (Ian Simpson) in the song “It’s a Chemical Reaction, That’s All” from the 42nd Street Moon production of Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings. Below: Simpson resists the charms of Hollywood bathing beauty Janice Dayton, played with relish by Dyan McBride. Photos by DavidAllenStudio.com

How in the world do you follow Strike Up the Band? 42nd Street Moon’s last outing was a spectacularly charming and tuneful production of a Gershwin show that has been unjustly sidelined by musical theater history.

The problem with doing such a bang-up job with Band is that there’s still a final show in the season with which to contend.

And may I say, the finale is no Strike Up the Band. But it’s Cole Porter, so all is not lost.

Silk Stockings, a 1955 musical adaptation of the Greta Garbo film Ninotchka, is a minor work with a wildly unfocused book and a hit-and-miss Porter score.

You don’t see a lot of Silk Stockings revivals, so we have yet another reason to celebrate 42nd Street Moon’s dedication to dusting off shows that we’d never otherwise get to experience.

Director Greg MacKellan’s production certainly has style, which is important when you’re basking the capitalist and romantic decadence of Paris in the ‘50s. Sarah Phykitt’s set introduces a nifty little proscenium that allows the stage, with just a few adjustments, to be a fancy Parisian hotel, a private salon for fashion shows or a movie musical set. It’s one of the more involves sets we’ve seen in a Moon show, and it’s lovely.

But loveliest of all are the glamorous ‘50s fashions put together by costumer Louise Jarmilowicz. The leading ladies look stunning – like they just stepped off the pages of 1955 Vogue.

As ever, the score is ably handled by music director/pianist Dave Dobrusky and invaluable saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Nick DiScala.

I only wish the score they were playing was more rewarding.

There are some fun songs in the score, but even some of the better tunes don’t make a whole lot of sense in context of the story. For instance, the ebullient “Stereophonic Sound” is performed by a former bathing beauty of the cinema (think Esther Williams) who has fled the Hollywood studio system to make an independent French film.

When she sings “Stereophonic,” which lists all the latest widescreen crazes like Cinemascope and Todd A-O sound, it’s never quite clear if she’s overwhelmed by all that technical gimmickry, delighted by it, railing against it or happy just to be in the mix at all (perhaps it’s all of the above). One certainly didn’t make movies in France in the 1950s to revel in Hollywood dazzle (even though that’s exactly what the bathing beauty ends up doing), so the purpose of the song doesn’t really come across.

The same is true for a song added to the 1957 movie (with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse), “The Ritz Roll and Rock.” The song is a lot of fun (and the choreography by Jayne Zaban is snappy), but as performed by Russian artists who would rather be back in Paris, this Porter twist on rock and roll seems more of a novelty than a number integrated into the story.

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Ah, the story, the pesky story. Part of the problem with Silk Stockings is the muddled book by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath and Abe Burrows. It takes too long to figure out whose story this is. First it seems to be the tale of a defecting Russian composer, then it seems to shift to a Russian bureaucrat who falls under the spell of capitalism (and a handsome American) while in Paris. Then it seems maybe we’re shifting to the swimming Hollywood star.

But no, the story really is about Ninotchka, the stern Russian lady whose Communist resolve is no match for decadence and delight.

Though nicely performed by Lee Ann Payne, Ninotchka isn’t all that interesting a character, and neither is her paramour, slick agent Steven Canfield (charmingly played by Ian Simpson).

Far more interesting is Dyan McBride as Janice Dayton, the actress aspiring to roles that don’t leave her waterlogged. McBride has great fun with “Stereophonic Sound” and does her best with the limp “Satin and Silk.” Even her goofy musical number “Josephine” (the result of turning a serious take on War and Peace into a musical bio of Napoleon’s wife), as fun as it is, goes nowhere.

The title song, sung by the lovestruck agent, has to be one of Porter’s weakest, and the duet “As on Through the Seasons We Sail” aims for poetry but just tanks.

The love song “All of You” is still performed with some regularity, though it sounds like Porter recycling himself.

Functioning in this show much the way “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” functioned in Kiss Me Kate is the song “Siberia,” an old-fashioned vaudevillian shuffle. In this production, Porter’s ode to Russia’s punishing frozen wasteland is performed with gusto by Jeremy Vik, Michael Rhone and Jackson Davis.

I would have liked to just relax and enjoy the production, but certain things kept niggling at me.

For instance, late in the show, the action shifts to a Moscow apartment building, where Russians in Russia, we assume, are speaking Russian to each other. Through the willing suspension of disbelief required for musical theater (or any theater, for that matter) the Russian is magically translated to English for our monolingual ears. That’s why “The Red Blues” bothered me so much. If they’re speaking Russian to each other, chances are good that the Russian equivalent of feeling sad and bummed out is not the same word as the color blue. It’s just a convenient (and rather lazy) attempt on Porter’s part to be clever.

And that’s my basic problem with Silk Stockings. Porter is, in many respects, phoning it in. But Porter on a bad day tends to be better than a lot of other composers on their best day, so at the very least, the score is consistently interesting if not exactly silky.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
42nd Street Moon’s Silk Stockings continues through May 22 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstreetmoon.org for information.

One comment

  1. Surely you’ve seen this by now:

    http://www.jasonrobertbrown.com/weblog/2011/05/a_love_letter_to_a_terrible_so.php

    Thanks for a fun review!
    J.

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